ICE leader says NY 'Green Light Law' hindering national security

"New York has barred agencies from information we need to do our jobs and it was done purely for political purposes"

Rebecca Carballo
Times Union

TROY, N.Y. — Matthew T. Albence, the acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, lashed out at New York's Green Light Law during a news conference Thursday, saying it imperils public safety, endangers law enforcement officers and hinders federal agents from doing their jobs.

Albence, who flew in from Washington, D.C., for the event at the Rensselaer County sheriff's office, was flanked by numerous federal, state and local law enforcement officials as he made an impassioned plea for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers to undo a new law that blocks federal immigration and border enforcement agencies from accessing the state's motor vehicle database.

Matthew Albence, the acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director, speaks about the New York State Green Light Law and how it impacts public safety.
Matthew Albence, the acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director, speaks about the New York State Green Light Law and how it impacts public safety. (Photo/TNS)

The law, enacted in December, gives illegal immigrants the ability to obtain driver's licenses. Cuomo and many Democratic legislators tethered the federal data restriction to their legislation, fearing President Donald Trump's administration would use the data to find and deport people. Albence contends that politically based decision is having severe consequences for federal agents who protect New York's border, hunt international criminals and help prevent terrorist attacks.

"New York has barred these two agencies, and only these two agencies, from obtaining information we need to do our jobs, and to keep you safe, and it was done purely for political purposes," Albence said. "As a 25-year law enforcement professional, it's unfathomable that information which could be used to prevent crime or a potential terrorist attack is purposefully being withheld in this state, the same state that less than 20 years ago suffered the worst terrorist attack on American soil."

As Albence and other law enforcement officials spoke, including the head of the National Sheriffs' Association and U.S. Attorney Grant C. Jaquith from New York's Northern District, the muffled chants of protesters who had lined up outside the Rensselaer County jail could be heard in the background. At one point, they banged on the windows so loudly the conference had to be briefly halted.

Numerous law enforcement and government officials from across New York joined the ICE leader in his call for overturning the motor vehicle database blockade — saying their reasons are non-political and strictly based on the ability of federal agents to help state and local law enforcement agencies combat crimes including drug trafficking, sex trafficking, murder and other serious offenses.

Officers rely on those databases  to run license plates and gather other information when responding to crimes. For instance, after five people were stabbed in a rabbi's home in a New York City suburb in late December, ICE officers were nearby, attempting to help respond to the incident, but couldn't run the plates of any vehicles in the area to check on anyone entering or leaving the area around the time of the crime.

"We had to call one of our task force officers. You know when we got that information? An hour and a half later," Albence said. "What the hell good does that do for law enforcement at that point?"

After the stabbing, Cuomo visited the New York City suburb and announced he would be allocating more money to improve the community's security. Earlier that month, had had already deployed additional state troopers to protect synagogues and other Jewish establishments in the wake of an unprovoked attack on a Kosher market in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

“We are not asking the state of New York to provide us a list of illegal immigrants," Albence told reporters, noting the agency does not need New York to provide that information. "Facts are  important. Seventy-percent of the joint-terrorism task force disruptions stem from arrests that are for immigration violations. Yet the agency responsible for those arrests, is now frozen out of the New York state motor vehicle databases."

Albence's visit came on the heels of the Trump administration's decision to suspend New York residents from enrolling in federal Trusted Traveler programs in response to the state's implementation of the controversial law. Homeland Security officials said that without the ability to check the motor vehicle records of New York residents seeking enrollment in those programs, they cannot safely give them clearance.

Cuomo has responded that he would give that agency access to the motor vehicle records of only those Trusted Traveler applicants, but would never surrender access to the full database because it includes the addresses and other personal information of illegal immigrants who have been issued driver's licenses.

Albence, noting he has served in the enforcement arm of the Homeland Security agency under Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama, said their news conference was not a result of Trump policies or political disputes between the Republican president and New York's Democratic leaders.

"This is a pre-911 mentality in a post-911 world," he said. "Short of taking our guns away, I can think of no law that would be more dangerous to our officers and our agents."

Albence and several of the other law enforcement members at the event emphasized that they don't believe the Green Light Law is an immigration issue. In New York during the 2019 fiscal year, he said, ICE agents made 3,754 arrests, of which 3,102 involved individuals with criminal convictions or pending charges.

“The only people who are benefiting from these laws right now are criminals,” Albence told the Times Union in an interview.

Cuomo, during a news conference in Manhattan later Thursday afternoon, did not directly address the comments made by Albence and other law enforcement officials in Troy, instead directing his remarks at the Trump administration's policies.

“Yes, they will hold one thing hostage to get what they want. Yes, they do extort," Cuomo said.  "Yes, they do hold (approximately) 200,000 New Yorkers hostage on the Trusted Traveler Program."

He contends, without offering evidence, that the federal immigration and border officials would use the motor vehicle data to target "undocumented (people) who are living peacefully, have not committed a crime, are not violent, so they can disrupt families, and continue their political jihad, which is what it is. It’s a pure political crusade."

Albence noted that before being deported, immigrants are entitled to due process and have their cases adjudicated in legal proceedings. However, advocates say that it's an unfair playing field because many immigrants do not have the resources to hire an attorney, and do not have the right to a public defender.

Protesters at the event insisted they should be allowed inside the sheriff's facility to watch Albence's news conference but were turned away. The dozens of protesters gathered outside began to nudge their way toward the doors of the sheriff's facility, which were blocked by three deputies.

The law received backlash from law enforcement and county clerks for months before it was implemented. Rensselaer County Executive Steven F.  McLaughlin said the governor should not have signed the bill into law and called on lawmakers to correct it.

“The Legislature is in session now,” McLaughlin said. “It’s up to the Legislature to take note of what is going on now and to take note of the danger this bill represents and fix it.”

During the news conference, a reporter asked Albence why he waited until two months after the law went into effect to speak out.

"We didn't know the full extent of the impact it would have on us," Albence responded.

Last week, Cuomo and Trump met at the White House, but did not come to an agreement on Cuomo's proposal to allow Homeland Security agencies to access the state's motor vehicle database only for the purpose of screening applicants to the secure traveler programs.

Albence’s visit drew a strong reaction from local and state advocacy groups that support the Green Light law.

“The Green Light Law protects road safety and expands access to travel. It allows all New Yorkers to lead fuller lives and makes our communities stronger,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “But ICE is more interested in militarizing our streets, increasing raids, and intimidating New Yorkers.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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