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New York's Governor Says A Leaked DHS Memo On Immigrant Driving Records Is A "Smoking Gun"

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the memo was proof that the Trump administration was engaging in "politically motivated retaliation meant to specifically punish New York."

Posted on February 11, 2020, at 12:44 p.m. ET

Hans Pennink / AP

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address in January.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that BuzzFeed News’ reporting of a leaked Department of Homeland Security memo outlining methods to get access to driver records and retaliate against states that do not cooperate was proof that the Trump administration “is once again knowingly abusing power by using government to extort states for political purposes.”

The Jan. 27 memo, written by a top DHS official, James McCament, outlined potential options for acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf to consider in their efforts to not only obtain the driver records but to punish states like New York that cut off access to the information.

McCament offered up options such as using “friendly” states to discreetly collect information for federal immigration authorities that would otherwise be inaccessible by law. The plans also include retaliation measures against states that limit access to records, such as closing down local DHS offices, refusing to accept their state identification, cutting TSA PreCheck services, and potentially issuing subpoenas for driver's licenses provided to undocumented immigrants.

“The memo reported on by BuzzFeed is a clear, documented admission by the Trump administration that they are purposely targeting law-abiding U.S. citizens to play partisan politics,” Cuomo said in his statement. “This is Ukraine-style extortion right here in our own country. The Trump administration should release the memo immediately.”

The memo repeatedly references “uncooperative states” — an indication that DHS has considered taking action against other jurisdictions. DHS officials said the document was not considered in the decision-making process, though two of the options listed in the memo were ultimately used by Wolf.

"As the memo clearly states, the recommendations were informational, draft, and pre-decisional," DHS spokesperson Heather Swift said in a statement. "The Acting Secretary did not consider the draft recommendations in his decision making. Instead, the Acting Secretary took targeted and limited action to address the security vulnerability New York’s law created."

Mark Lennihan / AP

People wait to be served in a Department of Motor Vehicles office in New York.

In recent weeks, administration officials have slammed New York for passing the Green Light Law, which in addition to licensing undocumented drivers has barred state officials from providing driver information without a warrant to agencies that conduct immigration enforcement, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. The law went into effect in December; though other states have similar laws, DHS has called New York’s the most expansive.

The memo was drafted more than a week before Wolf wrote to New York State Department of Motor Vehicles officials, informing them that tens of thousands of state residents would no longer have access to “trusted traveler” programs, such as Global Entry, because of the law, which he has described as misguided and dangerous. ICE officials rely on state DMV databases to locate targets, identify them, and get their vehicle information.

Cutting the trusted traveler programs was listed in the DHS memo as the fifth among eight ranked options intended to address laws that restrict access to DMV information. McCament provided the options for Wolf to “consider in response to the impact of the NY Green Light Law and other laws restricting access to state DMV information.”

For each option listed, McCament provided a “pro” and a “con” description. If DHS were to obtain the information it sought through other states, “not only would this provide a path for DHS to obtain the information that uncooperative states refuse to provide, but it would also be able to be achieved with a level of discretion that may not be possible with other potential options.”

The negatives to such an approach, he explained, would be that it would send the “message” that states could “refuse to provide critical information with the Department without a consequence.” DHS would also be unable to get the information quickly, the “uncooperative” states could already be limiting the information given to other states, and it’s unclear if “friendly” states would be willing to expend resources to help DHS, he wrote.

“From the beginning we have said the Trump administration’s decision to ban New Yorkers from the trusted traveler program was politically motivated retaliation meant to specifically punish New York. We were right,” Cuomo said. “The leaked DHS memo is the smoking gun that proves that the Trump administration is once again knowingly abusing power by using government to extort states for political purposes, with no rational link to a legitimate policy.”

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