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August 20, 2019

Governor, show some political courage and fight for driver’s licenses for all

June 12, 2019
A member of advocacy group La Fuente shows her support for drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants at a recent press conference. (New York Immigration Coalition)

Posing for a photo-op is not an act of political courage. Saying you support a policy while doing little to see it enacted isn’t a profile in leadership. But unfortunately, when it comes to the debate over allowing all New Yorkers to access driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status, we haven’t seen real action.

Many of our politicians have spent many hours draping their arms around immigrant New Yorkers, telling everyone who will listen that they are the antidote to the toxic Trump presidency. Yet the progress on pro-immigrant rights bills, like the Green Light NY legislation — a bill that would give equal opportunity to 265,000 undocumented New Yorkers to get driver’s licenses — remains stuck in the mud of Albany.

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While many politicians are at fault here — the state Senate notably has also refused to act — one stands out above the rest, Gov. Cuomo. Not just because of the enormous power he holds, but because his efforts pale in comparison to the action his father took again and again when faced with a similar crisis of conscience.

Andrew Cuomo says he supports allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, but he has not matched that rhetoric with action. But when his father, Mario Cuomo, was governor during the 1980s and early 90s, the elder Cuomo steadfastly opposed the death penalty even in the face of wide public support, and used the powers of his office to do something about it.

The difference between those two approaches could not be more stark, and the stakes are just as high now as they were back then.

When Mario Cuomo was governor, roughly 75% of New Yorkers supported legalizing the death penalty. But he viewed it as an immoral act of government, and said we needed “to find a better answer to violence…than violence.” Then he followed that rhetoric up with strong action and leadership, vetoing death penalty bills 12 times.

Andrew Cuomo has often cited his father’s firm stance as the ultimate act of political leadership, saying “he had the courage to stand firm in his beliefs — so much so that he was willing to lose his office rather than capitulate.”

But when faced with a similar situation now, with hundreds of thousands of hard-working New Yorkers seeking the restoration of the right to obtain a driver’s license that was stripped away from them, the current Gov. Cuomo has been satisfied with symbolic gestures — like holding his inauguration at Ellis Island, draped in its pageantry and talking about his immigrant ancestors — instead of taking concrete action.

He has called on the legislature to pass the bill, said he will sign it and even chastised the Senate’s inability to pass it. But what he hasn’t done is put his political capital behind pressing the Legislature to pass it. Or taken it upon himself to rescind the two-decade old executive order that is stopping 265,000 immigrants from being able to drive to work, pick up their kids at school or take a family member to a medical appointment.

Instead, Gothamist has reported that behind the scenes, the governor and his hand-picked Democratic state party chairman have been warning suburban senators, particularly on Long Island, that voting for the Green Light NY bill could cost them their seats.

Is Andrew Cuomo afraid of the fact that the issue doesn’t poll well? Many people forget that in 2011 when Andrew Cuomo first became governor, he fought hard to push through a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Like today’s Green Light bill, the public was initially against it — but he wasn’t deterred and he more than any other leader made it happen.

In the aftermath of the tragic Newtown, Conn., school massacre, Cuomo again showed his considerable strength and political courage by fighting to enact one of the toughest gun safety laws in the nation, despite strong opposition from most Republican and many independent voters.

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And most recently, he passed a controversial congestion pricing plan that faced major public opposition, because he knew it was essential for raising needed revenue to fix our crumbling subway system.

The fact is 12 other states, including deep red Utah and our neighbor Connecticut, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. It’s also a fact that in those states, there have been fewer traffic fatalities and a drop in uninsured drivers — meaning it will make roads safer for all New Yorkers.

We have the facts on our side. Now we need our leaders, like Cuomo, to lead from the front instead of the back.

Choi is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

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