Several times a month, ships loaded with used cars leave ports around New York, bound for sale in the Caribbean, West Africa and the Middle East. It is a bustling business that starts with car dealerships and involves auction companies, exporters, freight carriers and shipping lines.
Tens of thousands of cars make their way overseas every year through this secondhand trade, which rarely gets much notice. But the industry has suddenly ground to a halt after becoming an unexpected target in President Trump’s crackdown on states that hamper efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.
As part of a raft of restrictions announced this month, the Department of Homeland Security said vehicles with New York State titles would face delays before they could be exported. The shift came at the same time as a change that got much wider attention: The federal government also began barring New York residents from trusted traveler programs, such as Global Entry.
Officials tied their actions to the state’s passage of the Green Light Law, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and blocks federal agencies from gaining access to the state’s motor vehicle databases. Customs officials said they needed that access to verify vehicles’ ownership.
“Because of the blockage by New York, they are introducing for themselves — and I’m sure they didn’t think about this — the consequence of much slower sales of their own vehicles,” Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said after the change was announced on Feb. 5.
In reality, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and people in the industry said, the car export trade has not slowed. It has stopped.
Ships have been detained at port, containers unloaded and cars put back in storage.
The change has hit those dealing in salvage vehicles — inoperable vehicles sold for scrap — as well as expensive antique and classic cars bought by overseas collectors. People hoping to ship their own vehicles out of the country as part of a move have seen their plans stymied, too.
A thriving salvage vehicle industry has taken root in the New York area because of its proximity to ports including Port Newark-Elizabeth in New Jersey and large auctions that sell cars from local dealers.
Louis Spano, whose company, Red Hook Shipping Inc., exports salvage vehicles to Haiti that are often packed with dry goods and clothing, said he already has had to leave hundreds of vehicles behind in Brooklyn. He learned of the change as he prepared to load a ship at the Red Hook Container Terminal with $80,000 worth of vehicles.
“When the bomb dropped on us, what are you going to do? We never loaded them,” he said.
He said a number of area businesses would be affected, particularly shipping lines that focus on car exports. Mr. Spano said he did not think the entreaties of small business owners could influence the stalemate between New York and Washington. “It’s bigger than us, honey,” he said. “It’s bigger than us.”
Tim O’Day, the president of U.S. operations for Insurance Auto Auctions, a large company that is based near Chicago and processes more than 100,000 vehicles a year in New York, said the company has just recently started to assess the impact.
“We have learned that the policy change is limiting and halting our buyers’ ability to promptly export vehicles with New York ownership documents,” he said.
If the standoff continues, shipping lines specializing in exporting vehicles will probably reduce the number of calls to New York, focusing instead on ports in other states to meet demand for used cars overseas.
Mr. Cuomo, who had assailed the ban on Global Entry applications as “extortion,” met last week with Mr. Trump without reaching any deal. The New York attorney general has sued the federal government for what the office says is retaliatory action against the state.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the agency checks vehicle identification numbers against state D.M.V. records to verify ownership and check for fraud. There has been a long history of theft rings exporting stolen cars from area ports.
“Because C.B.P. will no longer be able to carry out these checks against New York Department of Motor Vehicles records, the export of used vehicles titled and registered in New York may be significantly delayed,” the spokesman said.
A Cuomo administration official cast doubt on Homeland Security’s justification for the restrictions on vehicle exports, saying Customs and Border Protection could check if cars were stolen using a national database that is updated by the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.
The change appeared to be part of an escalating campaign by the Trump administration to put pressure on New York and other places with so-called sanctuary policies. The acting director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, Matthew T. Albence, was scheduled to speak in Troy, N.Y., on Thursday about public safety and the Green Light Law.
More than a dozen states offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, but only New York has shielded its motor vehicle database from federal immigration enforcement agencies, according to administration officials.
Many exporters and others in the industry were reluctant to speak publicly about the disruption, saying they feared retribution from the customs agency when the restriction on vehicles with New York titles is eventually lifted.
But they used words like “disaster” and “nightmare” to describe the impact.
Julia Sirkis, who works as an agent at K International Transport Co., a freight forwarder in Manhattan, said she had been fielding calls from confused customers for the previous week, from area residents moving overseas who planned to ship their cars to a man who had traveled from Dakar, Senegal, to buy a used vehicle to send home.
“A lot of people are calling because they don’t believe it. It sounds so surreal,” she said.
Dmitriy Shibarshin, the marketing director for West Coast Shipping, a large car-shipping company, said he was advising the company’s clients, which include classic car collectors, not to buy cars in New York, or, if it was too late, to cut their losses and sell their vehicles at auction.
Ms. Sirkis said small businesses will be hit the hardest by the federal government’s stance.
“Global Entry normally affects people who have money. This affects people who are low income, middle,” she said. “Car shipments — it mostly affects immigrants, people who are sending cars back to their country, trying to make something.”
Far from New York, too, many had found their plans stymied by the sudden shift.
Adam Grodkowski, the owner of Pro Cartech in Olten, Switzerland, had just bought a used 2019 BMW at auction for $25,000 in New York when the change came down.
“I was really surprised,” said Mr. Grodkowski, who had planned to ship the car with West Coast Shipping to Germany.
“It is standing and waiting in a warehouse,” said Mr. Grodkowski, who said he had lined up mechanics and parts to get the car back on the market, where he hoped it would sell for about triple the auction price. “It is of course a very big bummer for me,” he said. “It’s frustrating. I am here in Europe and the car is stuck in the U.S.”