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Why Immigrant-Friendly Legislation Has Stalled In Mass.

BOSTON — With comprehensive immigration reform once again stalled on Capitol Hill, local advocates have been turning to Beacon Hill.

States across the country are taking immigration issues into their own hands. Last year, eight states passed laws that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

But, here in Massachusetts, there’s been little appetite for such legislation.

Take 4 On Driver’s License Bill

In order to understand the immigration debate today, let’s rewind a decade.

On Oct. 26, 2003, The Boston Globe published a story that seems like it could have ran last month. It began: “A proposal is quietly advancing on Beacon Hill that would give roughly 150,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts the right to obtain a driver’s license.”

A bill that would have given undocumented immigrants the right to apply for driver’s licenses has been introduced four times in 10 years. And not once has made it to the governor’s desk.

Immigrants celebrate after California's governor signed a bill last year allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver's licenses. A similar bill has been introduced four times in Massachusetts. (Nick Ut/AP)

Immigrants celebrate after California’s governor signed a bill last year allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses. A similar bill has been introduced four times in Massachusetts. (Nick Ut/AP)

Time and again, hundreds of immigrants have inundated the State House, asking legislators to pass the driver’s license bill.

Shannon Erwin, the state policy director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the bill was filed intermittently in the last decade, which might have hurt its momentum.

“There can be, unfortunately, a loss of heart, of people’s desire to move forward, particularly with events at the federal level and the failure of immigration reform,” she said.

Erwin said the bill remains one off her top priorities. But this session it’s still sitting in the joint Transportation Committee.

Pittsfield Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who’s sponsoring the bill, testified at a recent hearing.

“We have a de facto policy right now that allows a subset of our population to drive unlicensed, untrained and uninsured,” she said. “Obviously that is making our roads less safe.”

But her colleague in the Senate, fellow Democrat Richard Moore, does not agree.

“I don’t see any guarantee that it’ll make our roads safer,” he said in an interview.

Moore represents Milford. Three years ago, an undocumented immigrant who was drunk driving allegedly hit and killed one of Moore’s constituents. Moore says the state should not be offering benefits to people who entered the country illegally.

“It’s no guarantee that someone who has already ignored the law regarding citizenship, regarding living here legally, that there’s any guarantee that they’ll follow the rest of their traffic laws,” he said.

Eleven states have given undocumented immigrants the right to apply for a driver’s license, including neighboring Connecticut and Vermont.

A Small Victory For Immigrant Advocates

But in Massachusetts, people say immigration is inherently controversial.

And it’s not just driver’s licenses; it’s in-state tuition or efforts to curb deportations.

Last month, advocates gathered on the steps of the State House to celebrate a small victory. The so-called TRUST Act, a bill that would allow local police officers to refuse to detain people for federal immigration agents, passed out of committee.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, of Acton, sponsored the legislation, but even he admits it’s not likely to make it into law this year.

“I think there’s a lot of legislators that, you know, have heard from angry, largely conservative constituents,” he said. “And that scares them away from supporting the bill, even though they might support the bill on its merits.”

Insiders admit it was surprising the TRUST Act even got out of committee. They’re highly doubtful any of the immigrant-friendly bills will become law this year.

The big question, of course, is: why?

Political Theories: Why Immigrant-Friendly Legislation Can’t Succeed

Politicians, supporters, opponents and experts all mention a few fairly consistent factors.

“The residents of Massachusetts are fairly conservative on immigration and not as welcoming as that blue map might suggest,” said Maurice Cunningham, a professor at UMass Boston who specializes in Massachusetts politics.

Cunningham said the man on the street doesn’t care about immigration.

There hasn’t been tons of polling on the issue, but last year, during the U.S. Senate special election, WBUR asked voters what issues were important to their vote, and immigration was near the bottom. Jobs, gun control, taxes, the deficit and the military all ranked higher.

The state’s undocumented population is tiny, and it’s dropped in recent years. In 2010, it was estimated at about 2.4 percent of the overall population.

So there aren’t many undocumented immigrants in the state to influence votes.

Plus, according to Cunningham, the state Legislature isn’t as liberal as it looks.

“Massachusetts is an interesting political environment because if you look at the map, of course, it just shows up blue,” he said. “But in fact, statewide Democratic officials tend to be somewhat progressive. But in the Legislature, there’s a lot more conservative Democrats than you would think.”

Cunningham said it’s particularly hard to pass pro-immigrant legislation in an election year.

“The governor won’t be facing election again,” he said. “The legislators will, and they’re conscious of what people in their districts think about these issues. I think that plays a role.”

And then there’s the reason people whisper when you turn off the microphone: race, racism. People spoke about if frequently, but never on the record.

So it seems like there’s a combination of factors that spark wide-ranging views on immigration in this deep-blue state.

And, as a result, no major piece of immigrant-friendly legislation has made it to the governor’s desk in years.

Bucking The Trend

That apparent paradox defies the national trend for immigrant-friendly legislation, which in recent years has become a Democratic-dominated issue.

“John F. Kennedy one time said, ‘Sometimes, party loyalty demands too much,’ ” Moore, the state senator from Milford, said. “And I think this is something the Democratic party is not in sync with the majority of the population.”

Moore thinks the national party is wrong on this issue. He believes that by bucking the trend on driver’s licenses, Massachusetts shows the diversity of the state Democratic party.

Regardless of which political theory might be true, pro-immigrant legislation is also an emotional decision.

And, in the case of the driver’s license bill, emotions are particularly raw these days because as lawmakers consider the proposal, next month the trial of the drunk driving undocumented immigrant in Milford is scheduled to begin.

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