Michael Kearns is the County Clerk in Erie, New York. He has been making headlines ever since he announced that he would not be complying with a controversial new New York State law. The law, known as the Green Light Bill, allows people who are in the United States illegally to obtain a New York State driver’s license. A number of county clerks, including Michael Kearns, have said they will not follow the law if it means they have to grant licenses to migrants who are in the country illegally.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, signed the Green Light Bill into law on Monday, June 17. On Tuesday morning, Kearns wrote a letter to the Erie County Attorney’s Office expressing his opposition to the bill, and declaring, “I will not be granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kearns Says He Plans to File a Legal Challenge to the Law in US District Court
On Tuesday, June 18, Kearns sent a letter to the Erie County Attorney’s Office. Kearns wrote that he will not comply with the new Green Light Bill. He also asked the attorney’s office to represent him in challenging the new law. Kearns wrote, “As I understand it, this Act requires that, as an agent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, I will be compelled to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. I will not be granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.”
Kearns went on to say that he expects to face a lawsuit because he won’t be in compliance with the new law. And he said that he plans to file his own legal challenge to the law as it applies to the Erie County Clerk. Kearns asked County Attorney Michael Siragusa to represent him in that lawsuit. He wrote, “I anticipate being sued in either event. As a result, I intend to file a declaratory action in the United States District Court challenging the law as applied to the Erie County Clerk, and I request your representation in this lawsuit and in supporting the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
A spokesperson for the County Attorney’s office said that the office had received the letter and was reviewing Kearns’ request. The spokesperson did not say whether they planned to represent Kearns if he decided to file a lawsuit.
2. Kearns Called the New Law a ‘Breeder Document’ & Said He Doesn’t Want to Be a Part of It
Kearns gave an interview to 7Eyewitness News in which he explained his opposition to the new law. Kearns said that he could not “in good conscience” follow the new bill; he said that doing so would amount to breaking the law. Kearns called the Green Light Bill a “breeder document” and vowed that he would not be a part of it. “It’s more than just driving – it’s a privilege – it’s a gateway document – it’s a breeder document- and I’m not going to be a part of that,” he said.
Kearns also said that the new bill would require additional staff so that he could manage to process all the new applications for drivers licenses. But he said the bill didn’t provide any way of paying for the additional staff that would be needed. “There are so many flaws within this bill – there’s so many things that are going to impact law abiding citizens and Erie County residents,” Kearns said.
The New York State Senate passed the bill into law on Monday, June 17. The State Assembly had already approved the bill a week earlier. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law on Monday night. Cuomo said he was concerned that immigration officials might use information from the new drivers licenses in order to locate, and deport, people who are in the country illegally. But he later said he had received assurances from the Attorney General that the bill could not be “weaponized” against illegal immigrants.
3. Kearns Was a Member of the New York State Assembly Before Being Elected to the Position of County Clerk
According to Kearns’ official biography, Kearns decided to run for local government because, in his words, “he could no longer sit on the sidelines and watch a government that he felt was no longer serving the people they work for.” In 2005, he ran for a spot as Council Member for the City of Buffalo. He won the seat. Then in 2012, Kearns ran for, and won, a seat in the New York State Assembly, representing the 142nd district.
In 2017, Kearns ran for, and won, the position of Erie County Clerk. Kearns, who had served in the Assembly as a Democrat, ran for County Clerk as a Republican. He also cross-filed to run with the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Reform Party.
Kearns ran against, and beat, the Democrat Steve Cichon. Cichon is a local historian and the author of several books. He’s also a local radio host. Cichon describes himself as “a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves.” In addition to writing books, he blogs about Buffalo history and neighborhoods.
4. Kearns Graduated from Canisius College & Then Got a Job as a Sanitation Worker in the City of Buffalo
Kearns’ official biography notes that he graduated from Canisius College with a degree in Political Science. He then went on to find work as a sanitation worker in the City of Buffalo. The biography states, “He [Kearns] credits this period of his life for teaching him the value of hard work, honesty and dedication to one’s family, friends, neighbors and community.”
During Kearns’ run for County Clerk, he listed a few issues which, he said, were especially important to him. Kearns put customer service at the top of the list of his priorities, writing, “Whether filing for your driver’s permit or registering to vote, I want to work with the hard working employees to ensure every customer has a quick, successful, and enjoyable trip to the DMV.” He also said he would work to create a county-wide database of all “Zombie” properties in Erie. And he vowed to expedite the processing time for pistol permits for qualified applicants.
Kearns said that he was running for County Clerk because he wanted to “continue finding local solutions for local problems.” Kearns also argued that he had a track record of putting taxpayers and their needs ahead of politics.
5. Kearns & His Wife Erin Have One Child
Kearns grew up in Buffalo, New York and attended Bishop Timon High School, a Catholic boys’ school in southern Buffalo. The school’s mission statement reads, “Faithful to the Franciscan values of inclusiveness and respect for all, Bishop Timon – St. Jude High School serves as an academic and spiritual community which endeavors to educate young men to be responsible Christian citizens through rigorous academic programs, opportunities for individual growth and service to others in the local and global communities.”
Kearns’ father, Paul, was a firefighter in South Buffalo. Kearns has written on Facebook about how much his father inspired him and gave meaning to his life. On Father’s Day this year, Kearns wrote, “Happy Fathers Day to all Dads in heaven especially my father who was a great role model to me!”
His mother, Mary, grew up in Lackawanna. Kearns identifies as Irish American and says he is proud of his Irish heritage. He and his wife, Erin, live in South Buffalo. They have one daughter, McKenna. Kearns often posts proud messages about his daughter, McKenna, on his Facebook page.