When New York lawmakers passed the so-called Green Light Law in June, it was hailed a landmark victory by those who had fought for the measure for more than two decades.
The law makes New York one of 14 states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, which proponents argue will help them avoid deportation for relatively minor offenses, such as traffic violations.
But the change has been met with resistance from county clerks in conservative areas of upstate New York, who are now setting the stage for a political clash when the law takes effect next month. Some say they will refuse to issue the licenses, while others are also threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if applicants show up without documentation.
“If you come into my facility and you have done something illegal, it is my obligation to report you to the appropriate authorities, whether you’re a citizen or not,” said Robert L. Christman, the Allegany County clerk.
Only a handful of county clerks have adopted the stance, but the dispute has garnered national attention, with some drawing parallels to a Kentucky county clerk who refused to comply with the Supreme Court ruling declaring same-sex marriage legal. The clerk, Kim Davis, ultimately lost in court.
The New York conflict escalated after a federal judge on Friday dismissed one of three lawsuits the clerks had filed to challenge the Green Light Law.
In recent days, at least four clerks have said they will not comply with the law. Although in most states the Department of Motor Vehicles is administered by state agents, in upstate New York these duties frequently fall on county clerks, many of whom are elected.
If they deliver on their threats, the clerks could face repercussions: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could remove dissenting clerks from office or yank D.M.V. responsibilities away from their counties, which keep a small percentage of the revenue they collect for handling these services.
But Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has not said how he would respond to a rebellion — an indication of how politically divisive the issue remains. His silence stands in contrast to his position after New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, when Mr. Cuomo criticized clerks who would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo declined to comment.
Republican and Democratic state lawmakers have also introduced conflicting pieces of legislation in response to the discord. One would shield court clerks who refuse to grant licenses, while another would protect the jobs of D.M.V. workers who issue the licenses, if the Green Light Law is found to be at odds with federal law. Neither measure has advanced.
Even so, the sharp rhetoric has already had the effect of discouraging undocumented immigrants from applying for a license at all, some immigrant advocates said.
“This is a scare tactic,” said Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, a Washington-based advocacy group for low-income immigrants. “They are mirroring the politics of fear we’ve seen nationally with the Trump administration.”
The bitter debate over granting licenses to undocumented immigrants in New York has stretched almost two decades, underscoring the divide between liberal communities downstate and conservative areas upstate.
In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants to receive licenses, only to rescind it two months later under a fierce bipartisan backlash. The response deterred lawmakers from taking up the matter again until Democrats seized control of the State Senate in 2018 and the immigration policies of the Trump administration lent the issue more immediacy.
“For a long time, driver’s licenses had been the third rail of New York state politics,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. The legislation’s passage this year “really put to rest the notion that you couldn’t do anything controversial around immigration.”
But the battle over the law has cast a shadow over that victory, igniting tensions between progressive lawmakers with an immigrant-friendly agenda and the conservative local officials tasked with carrying out parts of it.
Bureaucratic hurdles are also adding to the strain. The law is set to go into effect on Dec. 14, but state officials have not yet issued guidelines for how it will be implemented, drawing criticism from all sides.
Joseph A. Jastrzemski, the Niagara County clerk, said a group of clerks sent the commissioner of the D.M.V. some of their practical concerns two months ago. “If this law is going to become effective in December, these concerns need to be addressed now,” Mr. Jastrzemski said.
In a state lawsuit he filed last month, Mr. Jastrzemski said the state has not told clerks how to make sure undocumented immigrants are not given the option to register to vote when they apply for driver’s licenses. The law could otherwise open the door to voter fraud, he said.
State officials said the D.M.V. was finalizing an implementation plan.
But many of these clerks still hope that they can temporarily halt the law through the federal courts, where they have argued that the Green Light Law conflicts with federal laws that prohibit assisting anyone who is suspected of being in the country illegally.
The Erie County clerk who brought the lawsuit that was dismissed on Friday, Michael P. Kearns, said on Tuesday that he would the appeal the decision. In response to Mr. Kearns’ suit, a coalition of eight states and the District of Columbia, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed briefs defending the law. The Conservative Party of New York State and the Immigration Reform Law Institute offered their support for the county clerk.
And a federal lawsuit brought by Frank J. Merola, the Rensselaer County clerk, moved forward this week after a judge temporarily paused it last month pending the outcome of Mr. Kearns’s lawsuit.
“This game is not over,” Mr. Merola said. “It has a long way to go.”
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