clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New York sues the Trump administration over denying residents access to Global Entry

The state is calling the policy change an attack on its sanctuary policies.

Travelers stand in long TSA security lines at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, on January 6, 2019.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The state of New York announced Friday that it will sue the Trump administration over its decision to block New Yorkers from enrolling in Global Entry and other programs that offer faster processing for pre-vetted travelers, calling the move “political retribution” for the state’s sanctuary policies.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli had told reporters on Thursday that New York’s Green Light Law — which offers state driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants — prevents the agency from accessing Department of Motor Vehicles records. Those records, he said, are essential to appropriately vet New Yorkers for “Trusted Traveler” programs like Global Entry, which is for international travelers arriving in the US.

Cuccinelli said that the policy change, first announced on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, was in the interest of public safety. Since federal law enforcement officers can no longer access the data they need to ensure that an applicant is indeed a Trusted Traveler, terrorists and other criminals could go undetected.

But New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Friday that there was a more sinister motive behind the policy change: “This is political retribution, plain and simple, and while the president may want to punish New York for standing up to his xenophobic policies, we will not back down,” she said, adding that preventing New Yorkers from accessing Trusted Traveler programs would not only inconvenience travelers, but also harm the state’s economy.

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, however, didn’t back down:

The new policy will only affect New York residents. They will be able to maintain their Trusted Traveler status until it expires, but no new applications for Trusted Traveler status or applications to renew that status will be approved. Those who have pending applications for Trusted Traveler status will also be rejected and their application fees will be reimbursed, according to DHS.

Other Democrats have also called the new restrictions a form of retaliation against New York’s sanctuary state laws.

“The Trump Administration’s ban on all New Yorkers applying for Global Entry and other Trusted Traveler programs is a purely punitive move that has nothing to do with security,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement Thursday. “It is clearly a blatant attempt by the White House to score political points and perpetuate a partisan fight with New York elected officials.”

New York’s Green Light Law

The Green Light Law took effect in December, allowing unauthorized immigrants to apply for state driver’s licenses as well as preventing state DMV officials from handing over any of its database information to federal authorities absent a court order.

Dozens of other states have enacted similar laws offering driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants, but none of them include such a blanket prohibition on accessing DMV records.

California, Connecticut, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, Illinois, Vermont, Maryland, Delaware, Hawaii, and Oregon, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, already offer driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants — meaning that roughly 5.3 million unauthorized immigrants nationwide are eligible to get one, according to 2017 estimates. New Jersey also recently passed a similar law.

Immigrant advocates continue to lobby other states to pass similar laws, including Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, and Massachusetts, which first proposed such legislation 15 years ago.

Research suggests that making driver’s licenses available to unauthorized immigrants improves safety. Obtaining a license requires testing and training on road safety, as well as proof that an applicant can get auto insurance. Drivers with licenses are also more willing to cooperate with law enforcement, reducing burdens on police forces.

A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal found that after California implemented its driver’s license law in 2015, hit-and-runs dropped between 7 percent and 10 percent on average — amounting to roughly 4,000 fewer such accidents annually.

Such policies also have financial benefits, both for local governments and for drivers. The Fiscal Policy Institute found in 2017 that state and county governments could collect about $57 million in annual revenue, as well as $26 million in one-time revenues, by issuing 150,000 driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants in New York City. The researchers also determined that it would likely lower auto insurance premiums overall.

An analysis conducted by New York City also found that having a driver’s license provides additional financial stability for families and increases employment opportunities for unauthorized immigrants. Having a car allows them to look for jobs and housing that are not located near public transportation.

It also helps shield them from deportation. If a police officer pulls over an unauthorized immigrant driving without a license, they could be referred to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent to removal proceedings.

Why the administration cares so much about DMV records

US citizens, green card holders, and citizens of 11 other countries — Argentina, India, Colombia, the UK, Germany, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Mexico — can qualify for Global Entry.

The application requirements differ by country, but US citizens and green card holders can apply if they pay a $100 fee and provide a valid passport and another form of identification, such as a driver’s license or state ID that includes proof of residence. They must also be interviewed in person, get fingerprinted, and pass a background check.

The Homeland Security Department says that an applicant might be denied if they have been convicted of any crime, have pending criminal charges, or have outstanding warrants, as well as if they have violated any immigration laws or are found to be inadmissible to the US.

DMV records help US Customs and Border Protection conduct a background check on applicants: They contain information to verify identity, residence, and biographical data provided by applicants, as well as criminal records.

The agency can access the same criminal records in New York criminal court databases, with the exception of non-criminal driving offenses, such as running a stoplight, speeding, making an illegal turn, or having parking meter violations. But the agency can’t verify other information provided by applicants without the DMV records, Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, tweeted Thursday.

“[T]he inability of CBP to now access and validate any of this basic information for New York residents would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to conduct the necessary criminal and background checks that are the foundation of trusted traveler programs,” she said. “So DHS does have valid concerns with the severe and categorical restriction on access to DMV data in the NY state law that would impede its border and law enforcement functions outside of immigration enforcement.”

But experts said there are also costs to limiting Global Entry access in New York, which has some of the busiest airports nationwide:

The potential political motivations

DHS says that New Yorkers’ access to Trusted Traveler programs is a privilege — one that it can take away if they no longer comply with security standards.

Aside from Global Entry, the affected programs include Nexus, which is for travelers entering the US from Canada by plane, land border, or sea; Sentri, which is for travelers entering the US from Canada and Mexico via plane or a land border; and the Free and Secure Trade program, which is for truck drivers entering and exiting the US from Canada and Mexico. TSA PreCheck, a program that allows travelers to go through shorter security lines at the airport, isn’t affected.

Cuccinelli said New York was reintroducing one of the security vulnerabilities that made 9/11 possible: the “failure of information-sharing across entities of government.”

“President Trump certainly made it clear that if sanctuary city politicians won’t keep their people safe, we’ll do the best we can to keep them safe,” he said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, framed the move as a form of “extortion” and “punishment for refusing to fall in line” with the administration’s immigration agenda in a statement Friday.

“There is no rational basis for this politically motivated ban, and we are taking legal action to stop the federal government from inconveniencing New Yorkers to score political points,” he said.

It’s just one of many instances in which the Trump administration has targeted sanctuary cities and states. The administration has also tried to withhold federal law enforcement grants from them and to vacate California’s sanctuary laws (but has mostly failed).