BUFFALO, N.Y. — Victor and Marcos are both in this country illegally, working up to 70 hours a week on farms about an hour southeast of Buffalo.
They each make about $100 a day doing hard labor, regardless of the weather, to bring fruit, vegetables and dairy products to market. They make more in a week on Western New York farms than they’d make in a month working in Mexico.
Both have been in this part of the state for at least a decade, supporting family members who remain home in Mexico.
For example, Victor supports three children from afar and has only seen them through a video phone app since he left Oaxaca, one of the 31 states of Mexico.
To get around, they must hail a ride from someone because they are unable to get a state driver’s license.
When Victor almost broke his arm on the farm he couldn’t find a ride and had to wait a day to get treatment because he did not have a vehicle or a license.
“It is very stressful to be in that situation,” Victor said.
To them, a driver’s license is not a luxury, but a necessity.
That’s why New York’s democratic-controlled legislature passed this session what is called the “Green Light” bill, which gives undocumented immigrants access to driver’s license. Lawmakers did so even though a Siena College poll showed that 61% of state voters did not support the contentious bill and clerks across the state, including Erie and Niagara, opposed it.
“We have fought really hard to be able to win this,” Marcos said.
“And I know a lot of people are afraid of this issue but the reality is that people are taking risks every day and a lot of people are on the road right now without a license.”
Advocacy groups believe as many as 265,000 illegal immigrants will apply for driver’s licenses once the law goes active at the end of this year. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that the law will result in almost $84 million in revenue over the first three years, and then $6.4 million per year.
But the extra money that the Green Light bill might bring is not enough to sway critics, some of whom are galvanized by a president who has already ordered immigration roundups and wants to build a wall between southern states and Mexico.
The biggest concern of those interviewed by News 4 Investigates is the potential for voter fraud. After all, the driver’s license applications include voter registration sections.
“It is very difficult to say it is an intentional misrepresentation when the person filling out the form may have just innocently continued along the application believing he is still applying for a driver’s license,” said Ralph Mohr, the Republican elections commissioner for Erie County.
‘This is a terrible law’
New York in June joined 12 other states and the nation’s capital in giving illegal immigrants the right to obtain a driver’s license.
Local leaders, including county clerks in Erie and Niagara counties, immediately criticized the bill, saying it could result in voter fraud, would put clerks in a risky position of having to identify and vet forms with which they are not familiar and that the law is too broad.
Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns filed a lawsuit to stop the law.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz agreed to move the lawsuit forward, saying he could not support the bill because of concerns with its constitutionality and illegal voting.
Some small towns and villages also passed resolutions opposing the bill, including the Village of Gowanda and the towns of Newstead, Holland and Wales.
Niagara County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski, like Kearns, opposes the legislation. He said he’d turn away any illegal immigrant seeking an application and would instead direct them to the closest state-run DMV office, which is in Syracuse.
“This is a terrible law,” Jastrzemski said.
“There are a number of us in the western region that will not provide driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants that are in our country illegally and are being treated different than somebody that is a U.S. citizen or is in our country with a green card that are here legally.”
States that have approved a similar law make the licenses distinguishable.
For example, California law requires that the licenses state “Federal Limits Apply” on the front and “not acceptable for official federal purposes” on the back.
Colorado’s licenses for illegal immigrants includes on the front: “Not valid for federal identification, voting, or public benefits purposes.” The state also requires a state income tax return to have been filed in the previous year.
In D.C., the license is marked “Not valid for official federal purposes.”
New York law requires the license to, at a minimum, contain the statement “Not for Federal Purposes” on the front. The commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles also “may promulgate regulations providing for additional design or color indicators…”
The state Department of Motor Vehicles, however, refused to respond to any questions about the design of the new licenses or if the application will differ from the ones American citizens use to apply for driver’s licenses.
That’s why some believe the license application could be a pathway to illegal voting.
The concern about illegal voting transcends the moral debate that this law sparked.
Both Democrats and Republicans expressed concern that illegal immigrants could knowingly, or even inadvertently, register to vote when applying for driver’s licenses.
“It will totally allow them to be able to register to vote,” said Jastrzemski, the Niagara County clerk.
“There are no safeguards whatsoever and that concern was raised by a number of us county clerks when it was going through their process when they were still trying to decide whether they were going to vote to make this a law. And it fell on deaf ears.”
Nicole Hallett, director of the Community Justice Clinic at the University at Buffalo, said no reports of widespread voter fraud have occurred in states that had already bestowed the right to driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“Yes, it is theoretically possible if someone really wanted to commit perjury and also a federal crime in voting unlawfully in an election, they could do that, but there’s just simply no evidence that that is going to happen, except in extraordinarily rare cases,” Hallett said.
Mohr, the Republican elections commissioner for Erie County, said there have been a few very close races in the county, so it wouldn’t necessarily take widespread fraud to make a difference in some races.
It’s just too easy to register to vote on the driver’s license application, he said.
For example, he estimated that the elections office this year has already received 2,500 duplicate registrations from the DMV. He stacked the pile of duplicate registrations on his desk and it nearly reached his chin. This means people inadvertently registered to vote again on a license application when they had already done so.
Mohr said a separate driver’s license application with the voter registration section removed would be a safeguard.
“That would be the most preferable way of going about doing it where a person who comes in under the Green Light situation, and is not eligible to vote, doesn’t even have the option to create a voter registration form,” he said.
But Hallett said felons can drive but not vote. Felons are not committing widespread voter fraud, so why would immigrants, she said?
“Most of our elections aren’t decided by one vote, they aren’t even decided by 10 votes or 100 votes, so for someone who’s an undocumented immigrant who decided that it’s worth the risk to lie under oath and commit a federal crime in order to cast a single vote in an election, which will in all likelihood have no effect on the outcome, it doesn’t meet the common sense standard,” she said.
“And that’s in fact why we don’t see very much individual voter fraud happen either here or across the country.”
‘We are not using this for voting’
Marcos gets one day off a week.
He’d like to enjoy his day off with some dinner and a beer, but he can’t because he knows he will be asked for identification he does not have.
A driver’s license, he said, would help him connect with his community instead of feeling “enslaved in our houses.”
“We are not using this for voting,” Marcos assured critics.
“It is really about being able to move and get around and it is also very important to have an official ID from the state in which we are in.”
Hallett said there is an underground economy of people taking advantage of the illegal immigrants who need rides. Victor said he is charged up to $70 for a 20-minute ride to a grocery store.
“These immigrants are often working on rural farms where it’s simply impossible to do things like go get groceries or take their kids to school or the doctor unless they have a driver’s license,” Hallett said.
Both Victor and Marcos said they took the risk of immigrating to the United States to provide better futures for their families. The critics of this law seem to ignore the benefits that they do provide, including the taxes deducted from their paychecks, they said.
“I think they should think about what we provide for them,” Marcos said.
“Like milk, their vegetables, if they really think about where that’s coming from, those are coming from the hands of us that produce that.”
Victor added: “If they want to do the work that we do then go ahead, they can do it.”
“If being a hard worker is a criminal, well, that’s what I know how to do, I know how to work very hard,” Victor said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or if it’s hot out, we are always there working. That’s one of the things the community doesn’t understand and rejects us in that way.”