County clerks from around the state are mobilizing opposition to a bill that would provide undocumented immigrants with driver's licenses — reigniting a debate from more than a decade ago.
"After working here for 30 years, I've got to get it in the back of my mind how to give a license to someone knowing they are not here legally," said Frank Merola, (R) Rensselaer County clerk.
In 2007, then-Governor Eliot Spitzer pushed a similar bill, only to withdraw it amid a political outcry. At the time, it was opposed by then-Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, now the lieutenant governor.
"You can ask the last couple of governors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, about asserting my independence on issues I didn't think were good for the people of my own county — whether it was the mandatory licenses plates or illegal immigrants getting driver's licenses," Hochul said.
But more than 10 years later, Hochul says things have changed, pointing to the policies of President Trump and the impact migrants have on businesses in New York.
"It is much safer for them to be licensed on the road and have insurance as they're driving, and so we're welcoming them into our larger community because many of them already have families here," Hochul said.
Current Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns says he's discussed his concerns with federal law enforcement, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. And he has sent a letter to fellow county clerks to stoke opposition to the measure as well, pointing to issues with security.
"We're working on it and I'm already planning from the county clerks office on what we're going to do. Recently I had a meeting and I sat down with ICE and I discussed this issue with them," Kearns said.
In Rensselaer County, Republican County Clerk Frank Merola plans to raise the issue at a meeting in January with the state's county officials. Merola worries about the potential for fraud with the licenses.
"I'm hoping that the county clerks across New York state stand together and refuse to do it," Merola said.
Top aides to Governor Andrew Cuomo have said if the bill passes in the state legislature next year, he's expected to sign it.