Challenge to immigration law is tossed on eve of enactment

MICHAEL HILL
FILE - In this June 17, 2019 file photo, a protester holds a sign as members of the state Assembly speak in favor of legislation of the Green Light Bill, granting undocumented immigrant driver's licenses during a rally at the state Capitol, in Albany, N.Y. The bill passed making New York the 13th state to authorize licenses for drivers without legal immigration status. On Monday, Dec. 16 license applicants without a valid Social Security number will be able to apply for a driver's license. An estimated 265,000 immigrants without legal documents are expected to get driver's licenses within three years, more than half of them in New York City, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.(AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A law that will allow New Yorkers to get driver’s licenses without having to prove they are in the country legally weathered a second court challenge Friday, days before its enactment.

A federal district judge ruled against Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, saying he lacked the legal capacity to bring the lawsuit. Merola, a Republican, had argued that the state law conflicts with federal immigration law.

Judge Gary Sharpe wrote in his decision that he was not ruling on the legality of the law, but on whether Merola could bring the suit.

A federal judge in western New York ruled against a county clerk in Buffalo on similar grounds last month.

Starting Monday, license applicants without a valid Social Security number will be able to submit alternative forms of ID that include valid passports and driver’s licenses issued in other countries. Applicants must still get a permit and pass a road test to qualify for a “standard driver’s license.”

Merola is one of more than 50 county clerks who run Department of Motor Vehicles offices as agents of the state. Some clerks have said they're frustrated with the rollout of the law and several have sued the state. Merola is among a few clerks who have raised the possibility of not enforcing the law.

“I am disappointed, and hopefully, this is only a setback. We will continue to fight to be heard," Merola said in a prepared statement.

State Attorney General Letitia James noted that two judges have now dismissed claims from county clerks she called meritless.

"We expect all public officials to comply with the law, and, as the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, I will continue to vigorously defend it,” she said in a prepared statement.