Lacking a driver’s license for the past five years, it’s been difficult for Mario G. to support his family. He drives a livery cab, but after losing his license because of a 2002 state rule change, he’s unable to work as much as he needs to. His wife Patricia has been cleaning apartments and stuffing catalogs in newspapers to try to make up for his lower income. “Ever since he lost his license things have been hard. …We’ve had to struggle to make ends meet,” says Patricia.

Mario and Patricia are undocumented immigrants (which is why they didn’t want their last name printed) living with their 9-year-old son in Corona, Queens. Their lives, along with those of the estimated 500,000 other undocumented immigrants in New York state, are about to change. On Sept. 21, Gov. Spitzer announced a new policy that will allow New Yorkers to apply for driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status.

The policy change will improve road safety, lower insurance rates and bring more undocumented immigrants into the system, according to the governor and supporters of the measure. Immigrants’ rights groups across the city think the new rules will put New York at the forefront of creating smart, sensible immigration policies. “We’re setting a wonderful precedent that other states can now follow,” says Valeria Treves, deputy director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a Queens advocacy group.

A variety of public figures, including Republicans in the state legislature, criticized the policy last week, while some county clerks said they simply would not follow the new rule. Mayor Bloomberg said it could lead to New York state driver’s licenses not being accepted as I.D. for air travel, while presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani said it would increase “fraud and confusion.” But representatives of immigrant, labor and community groups reasserted their support today with a press conference at City Hall.

Proponents say the new policy has the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for the city’s immigrants. Zahida Pirani, project director at the New York Civic Participation Project, an immigrants’ rights group that’s spent four years working for this change, thinks the policy is a “huge victory for immigrant communities in New York.” Government-issued photo identification provides entry to services large and small, says Pirani – it allows immigrants to open bank accounts, access government buildings, obtain library cards, and enter hospitals and entertainment venues that previously may have been off limits. “Having a driver’s license is pivotal,” says Milan Bhatt, workers’ rights advocacy coordinator at the New York Immigration Coalition.

And perhaps as important is the sense advocates such as Treves have that this change signals New York is “creating more of a space for immigrants in our society.” Not only will driver’s licenses allow for more personal and economic freedom, but they will also provide a welcome sense of stability in immigrants’ lives, she says.

“We’ll feel much more secure and safe because we won’t have the fear we’ve been living with,” acknowledges Patricia.

Word of the change has spread around the city fast. YKASEC, a Korean-American community organization, has started a hotline to deal with the flood of questions they’ve been receiving since Spitzer’s press conference. Referring to the new policy, staff attorney Kathy Chae says, “Most people can’t believe it’s true.”

The first phase of this policy change will begin in November, when the Department of Motor Vehicles will send informational letters to New Yorkers who at some point had a state driver’s license but were unable to renew it because of a regulation instituted under then-Gov. Pataki in 2002. The DMV issued an administrative policy that allowed residents without social security numbers to apply for a driver’s license, providing they had a formal letter of social security number-ineligibility from the Social Security Administration. That effectively barred undocumented immigrants like Mario from obtaining or renewing driver’s licenses, because only those with legal immigration status could receive such a letter.

Phase two of the transition will begin six to eight months after the first phase, when all New Yorkers will be able to apply under the new policy. Undocumented immigrants will check a box on the application that says they are not eligible to receive a social security number. They will then have to present a current foreign passport and, if a further adjustment is approved, proof of New York State residency as well.

Opponents of the change argue that it compromises security and sends the wrong message about immigration policy. In a recent press release, State Senator Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said, “A driver’s license is not an entitlement and is the most important document issued in the establishment of one’s identity.” He thinks that in allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses, Spitzer is making it easier for potential terrorists to access buildings and services that were previously off-limits.

Other critics worry that the new policy condones illegal acts. “It ignores the fact that people are in this country illegally. We now have millions of people who think our borders are meaningless and our political sovereignty is meaningless,” argues Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

But supporters say these fears are misguided, and that allowing undocumented workers to have driver’s licenses will actually make New York safer. For one, having more licensed drivers in the city will reduce the number of accidents; studies have shown that unlicensed drivers are much more likely to be in a fatal crash than drivers with licenses. As part of the new policy, the DMV will ensure against fraud with new document and photo verification technologies. The policy will also bring more New Yorkers into the system, so that should there ever be a security threat, law enforcement officials can identify individuals sooner. In the initial state announcement, deputy secretary for homeland security Michael Balboni said, “We have been meticulous in ensuring that this change in policy, and the new security measures we are putting in place, strengthen our homeland security efforts by licensing a population of New Yorkers who previously had no public records.”

City Councilman John Liu, chairman of the transportation committee, is happy to see the DMV move away from immigration enforcement and return to its core functions. In his view, it was “the misguided policies over the last couple of years that created unsafe conditions.”

For her part, Patricia in Corona is waiting patiently for one of the most important letters her family will ever receive. She looks forward to the time when her husband will be able to drive his cab again, so that they no longer have to struggle to make ends meet. She believes that the new driver license policy is “not only a great thing for my family, but for thousands of other families as well.”

– Tram Whitehurst

Additional reporting contributed by Demetria Irwin.