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Immigrant driver's license bill clears Massachusetts House by veto-proof margin

 People waiting in line at the RMV at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Massachusetts.
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
People waiting in line at the RMV at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts House passed legislation Wednesday that opens a pathway for some undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in the state, a move advocates say would make roads safer for all motorists and opponents argue rewards people for entering the country illegally.

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.

Rep. William Straus, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said the "narrowly drawn bill" would protect public safety and addresses Gov. Charlie Baker's concerns with the policy.

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 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," Straus said. "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.'"

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.

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.

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.

Rep. Timothy Whelan (R-Brewster), a former state police sergeant, said the bill "isn't a slam-dunk in the world of law enforcement by any measure." He said many in that realm have "serious concerns" when it comes to the validity of a person's documentation.

"My family came into this country from Ireland. I have no idea what a certified birth certificate looks like from County Cork where my family is from," he said from the floor of the House. "Are we demanding too much of our Registry of Motor Vehicle clerks? Are we asking them to become experts in foreign documentation and forgery detection? Are we establishing bifurcated sets of requirements for citizens and foreign nationals with legal presence versus those here without legal presence?"

The bill now heads to the Senate where Sen. Brendan Crighton sponsors that branch's version. The bill also has a supporter in Senate President Karen Spilka, who said in a 2019 radio interview that she "believe[s] that for public safety reasons, even just if you look at it alone, we should pass it."

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."

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.

An unsuccessful amendment from Minority Leader Brad Jones would have required the Registry of Motor Vehicles to provide a driver's license holder's information to any city or town clerk "seeking to verify the identity and eligibility of any individual using a Massachusetts license to vote or to register to vote."

Jones questioned why the Ways and Means Committee needed to specifically clarify that a person who receives a driver's license under the proposal is not automatically registered to vote. The North Reading Republican linked his concerns to Senate-backed language that would allow voters to register on the same day they cast a ballot, one of a number of election reforms being ironed out by a House-Senate conference committee.

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.

"I strongly support legal immigration and wish to incentivize those who wish to come here to do so in compliance with the laws of the United States," he said. "Therefore, I emphatically oppose our state giving driver's licenses to those who have entered and remain in America illegally."

Nineteen mayors and managers from Boston to Swampscott sent a letter Tuesday to members of the House and Senate in support of the bill, saying the legislation would greatly improve road safety and increase the ease with which law enforcement officers conduct their regular duties.

"Having a valid form of identification would allow these community members — many of whom have been on the frontlines of fighting COVID — to more easily access municipal services, enter buildings where ID is checked, apply for a library card, pick up needed medication from a pharmacy, or even volunteer at their child's schools," the letter read.

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. "In addition, the state could see an additional $5.1 million per year from taxes on car-related purchases and motor fuel."

Katie Lannan contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

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