Strong testimony at State House hearing on immigration rules

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To the people who knew him before his death, Matthew Denice was a responsible man. And it was his responsibility that put him on a Milford road last August, minutes before he was run down by a pickup truck, dragged and killed, allegedly by a drunk-driving illegal immigrant.

Just minutes before his death, Denice hopped on his motorcycle and left a friend’s house, hoping to stash his bike before nightfall — he never drove it after dark — his mother said Tuesday, sobbing as she recounted vivid details of Denice’s violent demise. Maureen Maloney wept as she described the truck barreling toward her son, rolling over him once — but not killing him — then dragging him for a quarter-mile, while onlookers watched in horror.

According to media accounts citing police reports, Nicholas Guaman, 34, of Milford, was drunk when he ran a stop sign and struck Denice, who was 23 at the time of his death. Guaman has pleaded not guilty to vehicular homicide, driving under the influence of alcohol and numerous other charges.

The account of Denice’s death, as retold by Maloney, transfixed a legislative committee Tuesday as it considered bills intended to crack down on unlicensed driving and employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Denice’s death has become a flashpoint in a fevered debate over illegal immigrants in Massachusetts. Immigrant advocates have called the focus on the truck driver’s immigration status a distraction from what they say is the real cause of Denice’s death: drunk driving.

But supporters of harsher penalties geared toward curtailing illegal immigration rejected that notion.

“My son paid the ultimate price with his life because Massachusetts is a safe haven for illegal immigrants,” Maloney told members of the Judiciary Committee. “The real question I ask is, Why would illegal immigrants not come to Massachusetts when we are so willing to provide them with jobs and free services they could not get in their native countries?”

Joining Maloney was a bipartisan group of lawmakers: Sens. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge) and Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) and Reps. John Fernandes (D-Milford), Stephen DiNatale (D-Fitchburg), and Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen).

The group backed two bills (S 2061 / H 3913) that would stiffen penalties for driving without a license, punish landlords who rent to undocumented residents, require drivers to present a Social Security number or tax ID number to register a vehicle, and would require the Patrick administration to report on its efforts to join a federal program intended to identify and deport illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes.

Advocates for immigrants sat silently but visibly frustrated as they listened to lengthy testimony that squarely portrayed illegal immigrants as responsible for numerous violent and unpunished crimes.

When it was their turn to speak, advocates cited statistics that showed immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born residents.

“Alcoholism and the crime of driving while intoxicated is a crime that does not discriminate,” said Shannon Erwin, state policy director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “This bill, however, does not address these issues and would not make our communities safer.”

Erwin, who has previously joined advocates to decry a backlash against immigrants in the wake of Denice’s death, added a new wrinkle to her argument: that a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision regarding eligibility for subsidized health care could render unconstitutional “many” of the provisions in the two bills.

Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, argued that immigrants in her community banded together to help police halt a recent crime wave.

“It was those undocumented families that were picking up the phone and calling the police department and saying, ‘I saw this, I saw that,’” she said.

Advocates contended that the bills heard by the committee would stoke racial profiling and discrimination.

Lawmakers backing the bills de-emphasized its impact on illegal immigration and focused more on the need to crack down on unlicensed drivers, abusive landlords and employers who are tilting the playing field in their favor by taking advantage of undocumented workers.

Tarr said that the bill would require that residents, “even if they are present legally…respect the laws of our commonwealth and drive with a license and don’t use false identification to gain an economic advantage when over 230,000 of our own citizens can’t get a job.”

“It’s not about hate. It’s about celebrating that freedom and fairness,” he said. “It isn’t about hate. It’s about respect.”

The bill would require individuals appearing in court for various civil and criminal violations to have their immigration status verified. Companies found to employ illegal immigrants would be barred from bidding on state contracts and could face sanctions. Attendees of public colleges and universities would be required to verify their immigration status before obtaining in-state tuition rates, and applicants for public housing, family assistance or college grants would also be checked for legal residency.The bill also tightens motor vehicle registration requirements by requiring a Social Security card or tax ID number, and stiffens penalties for driving without a license.Under the new penalties, driving without a license would carry a $500 penalty on a first offense — increased from $100 — and carry the potential for jail time on any subsequent offense. Drivers repeatedly caught without a license could face forfeiture of their vehicle after the third offense.Penalties for creating, disseminating or using false identification would also be increased, and the Patrick administration would also be required to submit a report to the Legislature describing what hurdles might exist to expanding license-plate reading technology currently in place in 16 communities.

Backers of the bills, filed last September, cited Denice’s death as an impetus.