By MAURY THOMPSON, firstname.lastname@example.org
State Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco on Friday threatened to file a lawsuit if Gov. Eliot Spitzer does not reverse course on an executive order allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in New York state.
Before going that route, he first will attempt to reverse the policy change through legislation when the Assembly resumes session on Oct. 22, Tedisco, R-Schenectady, said in a telephone interview.
"November first, if it doesn't, we're filing a lawsuit on behalf of the people of New York," he said.
Also on Friday, Saratoga County Clerk Kathleen Marchione said her office will not issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants despite the new state policy.
"I have made a decision that I am not going to be issuing drivers licenses to illegal aliens," she said in a telephone
Marchione said she made the decision after attending a press conference with Tedisco at the state Capitol on Friday morning, and used her license as identification to get into the parking garage.
"I came up to the trooper and he said, 'Driver's license, please.' It just hit me," Marchione said.
Other area county clerks contacted Friday said they are uncomfortable with the new policy, but will abide by it.
"We serve as agents of the state. That's our role," said Warren County Clerk Pam Vogel.
The change in policy will take effect for some illegal immigrants at the end of the year, and be fully implemented within the first six to eight months
of 2008, according to a press
release Spitzer issued last week.
Tedisco said the new state policy, which Spitzer announced last week, violates a section of state law that requires applicants for driver's licenses to provide a Social Security number or a letter from the Social Security Administration stating they are not eligible to participate in the system.
Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for Spitzer, said the state's highest-level appeals court has upheld the right of a state Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner to change policy.
"Those who are suggesting lawsuits fundamentally misunderstand the law in New York state," she said.
Pritchard said the policy change will ensure more illegal immigrants who drive will have proper training and insurance.
An American Automobile Association study found unlicensed and uninsured drivers are about five times more likely to be involved in accidents, she said.
If the strategy is successful at reducing accidents, she said, it could lead to lower car insurance premiums in New York.
The Social Security number requirement was added to DMV policy in 1995 as part of an effort to crack down on parents who do not pay child support, according to a document that state DMV Commissioner David Swarts recently distributed to county clerks.
In 2002, the state adopted a regulation allowing applicants ineligible for Social Security to receive driver's licenses, with certain documentation.
The controversial policy change expands how the state defines "ineligible."
Labor unions weighed in on the issue in support of the governor on Friday.
Allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses will establish a system to track an estimated one million undocumented aliens in the state and make sure employers are not exploiting them, said Denis Hughes, state president of the AFL-CIO.
"We have to find out if these individuals are working, where they are working, and whether they're getting the same worker protection as everyone else," he said.
Local 1199 of SEIU United Healthcare Workers also issued a statement supporting the DMV policy change.
Area state legislators, however, said the policy change could compromise security because a driver's license is a primary identification used to board an airplane, gain admittance to a federal building or purchase a firearm.
"That gets you admission to so many places," said state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury.
Area legislators said they were disappointed Spitzer made the change by an executive order rather than through legislation.
"A democracy shouldn't be a one-man rule," said state Assemblyman Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga.
Tedisco said a reasonable compromise may be to issue illegal immigrants a color-coded driver's license that could not be used as identification for purposes such as boarding an
airplane, gaining access to a federal building or buying a gun.
Pritchard, the governor's spokeswoman, said a color-coded license would be counterproductive to the goal of encouraging illegal aliens to apply for driver's licenses.
"A different color license for a lawful immigrant versus an unlawful immigrant would be like a scarlet letter," she said.
Hughes, the AFL-CIO president, said he is not knowledgeable enough to comment on homeland security aspects, but he thinks some type of compromise is possible.
"I do recognize in this conversation that there's plenty of room to work out what to do," he said.
The New York State Association of County Clerks is scheduled to meet next week to discuss the issue.
"The issue is very confusing. We're looking for more clarification on this," said Vogel, of Warren County.
County clerks are concerned counties will not be compensated for extra time involved with the policy change, said Washington County Clerk Deborah Beahan.
Counties retain a percentage of revenues on transactions processed through their DMV offices.
There would be no payment, however, if illegal immigrants come to DMV offices for forms and information but decide not to apply for a license, Beahan said.
Essex County Clerk Joseph Provoncha said he will encourage the association to recommend the state limit processing of license applications for illegal immigrants to DMV district offices.
The closest district offices to Glens Falls are in Albany and Utica.
The controversy has spilled over into next year's local congressional race.
Three candidates seeking the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Greenport, have issued statements opposing the policy change.
The three candidates who have issued statements are Michael Rocque of Saratoga County, Richard Wager of Dutchess County and John Wallace of Columbia County.
Wager issued a second statement saying the state should not punish county clerks who refuse to issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens.
Gillibrand issued a statement Friday reiterating a statement by her spokeswoman earlier in the week.
"I do not support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants," Gillibrand said in the statement.
Gillibrand said she supports federal legislation that will require applicants to show proof of citizenship in order to obtain a driver's license.