Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, speaking publicly for the first time as New York’s governor-to-be, insisted Wednesday she’s “evolved” since fighting against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants by threatening them with possible arrest and deportation.
Her political record has drawn new scrutiny in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation announcement Tuesday amid a sexual harassment scandal. She’s slated on Aug. 24 to become the first woman to lead New York’s 19 million residents — more than a fifth of whom are foreign born.
“Our immigrants need that,” Hochul told THE CITY during a news conference in Albany, referring to the licenses. “They need to be able to get to their jobs and parents need to take kids to doctor’s appointments.”
The Buffalo Democrat’s remarks represent an about-face from a stance that originally helped launch her into a statewide political spotlight.
In 2007, while serving as the Erie County clerk, Hochul threatened to arrest undocumented immigrants who applied for driver’s licenses. Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer sought to reinstate access to driver’s licenses for all after his predecessor, George Pataki, began requiring Social Security numbers for applicants in the wake of 9/11.
“I had taken a position that has now evolved,” Hochul said Wednesday in the most-watched appearance so far of a long career in politics. “And that evolution coincides with the evolution of many people in the State of New York.”
In recent years, Hochul, who briefly represented Buffalo in Congress before first being elected lieutenant governor in 2014, has changed course as Democratic politics have shifted leftward. She wrote an op-ed in May 2019 seeking to reassure New Yorkers on the fence that any safety concerns are quelled by the state’s so-called Green Light law.
As Hochul promised to “fight like hell” for New Yorkers in her new role, immigration advocates eyed her past with equal parts skepticism and hope — saying she’ll now have the power to show how far she’s come.
“I’ve been much more fond of Kathy Hochul the lieutenant governor than Kathy Hochul the former congresswoman,” said Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), who represents a district with a large immigrant population. “We see what legislators are made of in the same way that we see what human beings are made of over time. I’m hoping she continues this pattern of acknowledging and respecting not only the existence but the ability of all New Yorkers to thrive.”
‘Making Up to Do’
One of Hochul’s biggest challenges as she takes office will be spearheading New York’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Advocates say the key to her success may come down to how she incorporates New York’s approximately 4.4 million immigrants in that effort.
“She will not be able to rebuild our state’s economy if she does not step up for immigrant New Yorkers who have always been essential for our recovery effort and essential to our state throughout history,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “She has a lot of making up to do…. This is an opportunity for her to really partner with us to figure out what is going to really transform our state and allow everyone in it to thrive.”
Aside from being the first female governor, Hochul would be the first in generations not to hail from New York City or the surrounding suburbs, areas of the state with a rich immigrant population.
Hochul’s reputation as a center-right Democrat is in part rooted in her 2007 fight against Spitzer’s proposal to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
In her capacity as the Erie County clerk, she and the Niagara County clerk, a Republican, worked with law enforcement to cook up a plan to arrest undocumented New Yorkers when they applied for licenses.
At the time, Hochul said the threat of arrest would deter undocumented immigrants from seeking licenses, a form of ID that could “[give] them cover.” She couched her plan as a way to uphold both state and federal laws.
In 2014, as a candidate for lieutenant governor, she released a video defending her Democratic record, touting her work drafting “a law that gave a path to citizenship to millions” as an aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Monyihan, as well as her support for the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented college students access to state financial aid.
‘Putting Up Barriers’
But Hochul’s history opposing licenses for the undocumented again came under fire during the 2018 gubernatorial race, when actress Cynthia Nixon and city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — who were candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively — pushed for the cause.
By then, Hochul, running alongside Cuomo for re-election, had flipped. She indicated she supported granting licenses for undocumented New Yorkers, following the governor’s lead. The reason she gave was that times had changed — but that she still believed the federal government should lead on immigration reform.
Only two years later, in 2019, did Cuomo reluctantly sign a bill allowing undocumented New Yorkers to get licenses. He dragged his feet after raising safety concerns about the bill, punting the responsibility to State Attorney General Letitia James.
At the time, the governor’s office had privately told the attorney general’s office that allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses didn’t poll well and could hurt the administration politically, according to people with knowledge of the talks.
James, in her first big break with Cuomo — who had endorsed her run for attorney general — deemed the legislation constitutional, effectively forcing the governor’s hand.
It was James’ report detailing multiple sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo that led to his plan to resign, turning over the state’s most powerful office to Hochul.
Immigration advocates have chalked up the victories out of the Cuomo administration to pressuring him to do what they see as the right thing. They say passing the driver’s license bill fit into that pattern — as did securing Excluded Workers Fund, a $2.1 billion pool of aid for undocumented workers who weren’t eligible for pandemic assistance through unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.
“What we’ve seen from the executive chamber for the last decade has been effectively putting up barriers to [supporting] the communities’ needs, and there needs to be an immediate course correction to prioritize the needs and rights of community members,” said Daniel Altschuler, co-executive director of Make the Road Action.
A spokesperson for Cuomo did not immediately comment.
Opportunities to Act
A top priority for the Hochul administration should be to make the Excluded Workers Fund more accessible for those who need it, Altschuler and Awawdeh said. The same goes for easing the process of securing a license.
“We did licenses-for-all here, but the reality is there’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that has limited us. What can she do to push to facilitate that?” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former City Council speaker who has long supported Hochul in spite of their stark differences on immigration.
“There’s an opportunity here for her to really lay out…how she can be an ally towards immigrant communities in the state of New York and really work towards repairing that harm she inflicted in the past,” Mark-Viverito added.
Other priorities on immigration advocates’ agenda for Hochul include allowing undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance from the state exchange and creating a statewide right to counsel for low-income immigrants facing deportation.
They also want her help in passing the New York for All Act, which would limit how state and local law enforcement officials share information with federal immigration enforcement authorities.
A Democratic majority in both the Senate and Assembly — many of whom are pro-immigrant and part of the party’s left wing — may push Hochul to further protections for New Yorkers no matter their citizenship status.
“She’s going to be working with a state Legislature that has more women and more people of color than ever before in the history of New York, and she’d be wise to have an agenda that reflects the needs of all New Yorkers,” Ramos said.
She reflected on a recent visit Hochul made to Corona, Queens — a neighborhood at the epicenter of the pandemic and where residents are struggling to recover — as a hopeful sign of the soon-to-be governor’s progress.
Hochul, Ramos noted, had connected well with “many of my neighbors, regardless of documentation, and regardless of whether they can speak English or not.”