The House passed legislation Wednesday, Feb. 16, that opens a pathway for some undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in Massachusetts, a move advocates say would make roads safer for all motorists and opponents argue rewards people for entering the country illegally, the State House News Service (SHNS) reported.
On a 120-36 vote, the House advanced the bill to the Senate after hours of debate that divided representatives on whether the legislation promotes safe driving in Massachusetts or undermines legal immigration. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, who represents the Vineyard, voted in favor of the bill.
“Allowing undocumented immigrants to drive clearly promotes public safety issue – it ensures that all drivers on Massachusetts roads are trained and have insurance which is why the state Coalition of City Police Chiefs supports it. The bill is also about basic human dignity and respect,” Fernandes told The Times. “I’ve heard from dozens of Islanders in support of the bill and the most moving are stories from children in our community who are scared every time they get into a car with their parents to get groceries or dropped off at a friends house because their parent is undocumented. Kids in our community should not have to live in fear due to immigration status and everyone on Massachusetts roads should be licensed and insured.”
According to U.S. Census data, 11.1% of the Island’s 20,600 year-round population is considered “foreign born.” It’s unclear how many of those individuals would fall into the undocumented category.
Rep. William Straus, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said the “narrowly drawn bill” would protect public safety and address Gov. Charlie Baker’s concerns with the policy, the SHNS reported.
The bill (H 4461), he said, should not be viewed in terms of “the failures of federal policy” around immigration but through the lens of local roadway safety for all drivers and for law enforcement, the SHNS reported. The Mattapoisett Democrat referred to a conversation he said he previously had with Baker.
“The governor said — and I’ll quote him because the words meant a lot to me at the time. I’ve read them a lot and they formed, as I said, the touchstone in the primary documents security provision presented to you and I think is basically why it merits your support today — Governor Baker said, ‘My problem with giving licenses to people who are undocumented is just that, there’s no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are,'” Straus said.
The bill, Straus said, meets “the Baker standard” when it comes to strict requirements around the documentation needed to prove a person’s identity and obtain a driver’s license, according to the SHNS.
Proponents say the measure ensures all drivers in Massachusetts are licensed and trained to operate motor vehicles while opponents argue it allows undocumented people to more easily live in the state illegally. As drafted by the House, if the law were to make it through the Senate and signed by the governor, it would take effect on July 1, 2023, SNHS reported.
The bill has drawn support from law enforcement groups in the past including the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, who endorsed the legislation last session.
Edgartown Police Bruce McNamee said Island chiefs have not taken a position on the bill. He declined to comment on the bill, but did say “formalizing a system for people would be an aid to [police].”
He pointed out that while city chiefs showed support for the bill, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association remained silent on the issue.
The bill now heads to the Senate where Sen. Brendan Crighton sponsors that branch’s version, SNHS reported.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, who represents the Island, told The Times he’s a strong supporter of the legislation. ““I strongly support the Work and Family Mobility Act, and I am eager for the Senate to approve the bill,” he told The Times. “I have been a longtime co-sponsor of the legislation and am delighted that the House took action. Senate President Karen Spilka is also in favor of the bill, and a majority of senators are co-signed onto the legislation.”
Spilka issued a statement Wednesday after the bill cleared the House.
“As the granddaughter of immigrants, I have been a longtime supporter of the idea behind the Work and Family Mobility Act,” she said. “I know that there are many Senators who support it as well, so I am excited to see progress is being made on this measure, because individuals and families deserve to feel safe, and drivers’ licenses for all qualified state residents is good for our economy and public safety. As the bill now heads to the Senate, I very much look forward to having further discussions with our membership on this issue.”
Gov. Baker has previously said he is opposed to the idea of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants but this week passed up a chance to telegraph that he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
The governor reiterated his support for “the current position” and said that while he tends to be cautious about commenting about legislation that hasn’t been finalized, “we’ve made our position pretty clear that we’re pretty happy with where we are.”
The House passed the bill with a veto-proof margin despite unanimous opposition from House Republicans, who were joined by a handful of Democrats including Reps. Mark Cusack of Braintree, Colleen Garry of Dracut, and Patrick Kearney of Scituate, among others.
The proposal allows those without proof of lawful residence in the United States — including people ineligible for a Social Security number — to apply for a license if they have at least two supplemental documents proving their identity, birth date, and Massachusetts residency.
One document can be a valid, unexpired foreign passport or consular identification while the other could be a valid, unexpired driver’s license from any U.S. state or territory, an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, a valid, unexpired foreign national identification card, an unexpired foreign driver’s license, or a marriage certificate or divorce decree issued in Massachusetts.
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) said people use the term undocumented when referring to individuals who do not have federal immigration status.
“But it does confuse the matter a little bit, because what it means is they don’t have federal status,” Farley-Bouvier said. “They have documents. They have documents, and indeed, to be very clear, if they don’t have the documents outlined in this legislation, they cannot apply for a driver’s license.”
A new version the House Ways and Means Committee released earlier this week added language to clarify that a license or learner’s permit applicant who does not provide proof of lawful presence will not be not automatically registered to vote under the state’s automatic voter-registration law.
Straus, speaking in opposition to the amendment, said a driver’s license will never be an indication of voter eligibility.
“That is true, that has been true, that will be true,” he said. “This bill is not about voter eligibility or someone attempting to register to vote, either at a clerk’s office, a municipal clerk’s office, or online when they get their license.”
Advocates have been pushing legislators to pass the law for years and have staged protests at the State House numerous times. At one point in February 2020, activists with Movimiento Cosecha organized a hunger strike outside the State House in a bid to push for legislative action on the proposal.
Opponents of the measure have said the proposed law rewards people who immigrate to the United States illegally. In a statement to the News Service and MASSterList, Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl said he “would immediately veto the bill” if it reached his desk as governor.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said within three years of implementation an estimated 45,000 to 85,000 drivers — regardless of immigration status — would obtain new licenses.
“In the first three years of implementation, the new law could generate an additional $5 million from fees on new licenses, car registrations, titles, inspections, and others,” MassBudget said in a press release from April 2021, according to the SHNS. “In addition, the state could see an additional $5.1 million per year from taxes on car-related purchases and motor fuel.”
George Brennan contributed to this report.