At almost the same time that millions of immigrants took to the streets in major American cities to assert their presence and protest federal proposals to crack down on undocumented workers, a coalition of New York immigrant groups achieved a notable behind-the-scenes political success on a very down-to-earth issue: driver’s licenses.

On April 21, State Sen. Nicholas Spano, a Republican legislator from Yonkers, in Westchester County, introduced a bill that would make it possible for undocumented immigrants and others without valid Social Security cards to get driver’s licenses in New York State. Spano, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, won re-election last year by just 18 votes in a district that features an increasing number of immigrants. Republican support is key because Republicans control a majority of the seats in the State Senate, which must approve the bill before it can become law.

Spano’s bill–S7388–would enable people with foreign passports to get driver’s licenses, even if they don’t have appropriate visas for entry into the U.S. And it would also allow use of documents from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (an arm of the Department of Homeland Security) and from foreign consulates to demonstrate a person’s identity. Says the bill: “Eligibility for a driver’s license shall not be conditioned on a particular immigration status.”

In February 2004, the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) started a concerted effort to block people without valid Social Security numbers from getting or holding driver’s licenses. DMV found that the numbers provided by approximately 600,000 current license holders didn’t match federal records. All 600,000 got a letter from the state telling them they had 15 days to fix the problem or their licenses would be suspended. More than 250,000 New York residents did not provide documentation to verify their Social Security numbers. DMV agreed to stop suspending licenses a year ago, after the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) won a state court injunction against the program. Still, the DMV requires Social Security numbers for license renewals and all new applications, said Foster Maer, a PRLDEF senior counsel, a move that could be stopping hundreds of thousands of state residents from getting licenses every year. Said Maer, “Wouldn’t it be better to know who these people are and where they live rather than pretending they don’t exist?” Also clouding the picture is the federal Real ID act, due to take effect in 2008, which would push states to require holders of driver’s licenses to have valid Social Security numbers.

Immigration rights advocates argue that checking Social Security numbers on license applications is a way of marginalizing the undocumented. “The collection of Social Security numbers on licenses began as a way to crack down on dead-beat dads who were not paying child support,” said Gouri Sadhwani, executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, an immigrant organizing effort sponsored by New York’s labor unions. “The crackdown now is an attempt to give more weight to the idea that undocumented immigrants are not really a part of our society.”

Sadhwani said her group met with State Sen. Thomas W. Libous, the Binghampton Republican who heads the Transportation Committee, two weeks ago. She said Libous told them he would do everything he could to pass the bill. Libous could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for State Sen. Joseph Bruno, the Rensselaer County Republican who is the majority leader and has ultimate control over all Senate business, said Bruno had yet to take a stand on the proposal.

Still, the fact that one Republican has sponsored the legislation and others are talking about allowing the undocumented to get driver’s licenses shows that the immigrant rights movement in New York has become more powerful and more savvy.

Said Sadhwani: “It’s great for politicians to talk the talk. This is our way of pushing them to walk the walk.”

—Robert Neuwirth