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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  • Lawrence

    Why all of a sudden do we use the term, undocumented workers? What we are talking about are ILLEGAL immigrants. Dropping that words is an effort to forget what the issue is. They intentionally violated Federal Law, and in doing so, instantly became criminals.

    How and why they now march for rights is bizarre. Except for the fact that they and their off-spring now make up the majority in major cities and politicians need immigrant votes. “Can’t win without Florida” was the mantra in the last election.

    It’s about votes. Not human rights.

    • J__o__h__n

      And the “drunk driver” should have been refered to as a “nonsober driver” so as to not label a person.

      • Lawrence

        Yes, exactly my point.

    • mikberg

      That is not true. There are many legal immigrants who are undocumented and there are many illegal immigrants who are documented. The word “documented” refers to having a social security number. It does not tell you if someone is legal or illegal.

      • Lawrence

        Then, more reason to label them clearly. It’s the laws regarding illegal immigrants that this is all about.

        The word “documented” refers to having official papers of any sort that clearly proves one is in this country legally.

        And as much as some may want to sugar-coat it, they are criminals.

        • mikberg

          According to US law, anyone under the age of 18 is not considered illegal even if they came with their families illegally. They are required to get free public education and complete health benefits under Medicaid. So legally speaking, they are not illegal immigrants and are not “criminals.”But because they have no social security card they are “undocumented” and cannot get a drivers’ license in Massachusetts when they turn 16.

          • Lawrence

            Are you saying that this law, extending drivers benefits is for only those undocumented immigrants that are 18 and under?

            And that the actual criminals, those who violated Federal Law would not be afforded these or other benefits?

          • mikberg

            Lawrence, the point I was trying to make was that the term “undocumented” does not necessarily mean “illegal.” Here’s another example: In 2000 Congress passed a law that said if you came to this country legally (say as a tourist) and your brother sponsored you and your family for a Green Card you could legally stay here until it came through. The current waiting time for that process can be as long as 24 years. Those families from 2000 are here legally, but will be undocumented until 2024 because they don’t get a social security number until they get their green card.
            Couldn’t they be allowed to get a drivers’ license while they are waiting?

          • Lawrence

            Right. They indeed should be able to. I would imagine that they would have some documents to prove they are in the legal process of getting a Green Card.

            Therefore we should go back to the term, illegal immigrants as a separate category. To differentiate those that should not get a drivers license or any other benefit, whether they are documented illegals or undocumented illegals.

          • mikberg

            Lawrence, I think you are right. The problem in Massachusetts is the current requirement of a social security number to get the license. They would have to come up with a system that bypasses that requirement
            for those who are not illegal.

  • X-Ray

    We can’t give our own citizens the help and support they need and we should extend our support to those who come here illegally? We don’t have unlimited resources and charity begins at home.

  • ladyoptimist

    I fail to see how this would make our roads safer. We have folks convicted of DUI multiple times, licenses revoked, and yet they are still out there driving. The issuance of a license is no guarantee of safety, especially when you can renew your license without a road test, regardless of your age or health. The real issue is immigration reform. Once that is addressed, citizen rights will be granted to those who become citizens. This is an insult to all the immigrant-now-citizens who came here through the appropriate channels and earned their citizenship. Why reward bad behavior? Fix the real problem!

    • dust truck

      Or course it could give another avenue to prosecute those who drive without a license.

      • Lawrence

        Sigh, the hazards of smuggling yourself into a country, illegally.

    • PaulD

      I agree. Fix all the potholes and we’ll, literally, have safer roads.

      All the rest is pandering for votes.

  • J P Fitzsimmons

    I tend to believe that if you are undocumented (i.e. no license, no ss number etc) one would be an extremely cautious driver. A speeding ticket could cause big trouble. I remember once forgetting to renew my own drivers license and driving very cautiously until I renewed.

    • Lawrence

      Guess, at least in this case, you would be wrong to believe that:
      next month the trial of the drunk driving undocumented immigrant in Milford is scheduled to begin.

  • rickrabin

    Yes, let’s address the “real” problem: many people come to the US because of NAFTA and other foreign policies that make economic life impossible in Mexico and elsewhere.

  • Lawrence

    Native Americans did not have immigration laws.

    • Celio Tostes

      This make us equal.

  • mikberg

    Ralph, millions of illegal immigrants have social security numbers and are “documented” despite the fact that they are here illegally. Until 2004, you could get a social security number by opening a bank account. Millions of people who came to the US in the 1980′s, 90′s and until 2004 did that.
    They are all “documented.” They can work, pay taxes, get drivers’ licenses, fly on planes, get health insurance, own houses and businesses. But if they ever leave the country they cannot get back in because they are here illegally.

  • CComry

    This country is a free for all. There is no care for infrastructure or our national identity. Walk into another country illegally and demand everything be given to you on a silver platter. See how far you get. I give up. You lefties are impossible.

    • Lawrence

      Exactly! The gall to sneak in anyplace illegally and then start to demand “rights”, when they should be in jail.

      • CComry

        That’s a little extreme for me. I recognize the fact that many people still see America as the land of opportunity. It’s just that we’ve made it the land of entitlement. Throwing them all in jail does nothing but exacerbate prison overcrowding, and subjects a person who otherwise would never engage in criminal acts to all sorts of dangers. My point is that we’ve lost sight of what this country used to be about: Come here for the opportunity, but be prepared to work for it.

  • X-Ray

    The “undocumented” can’t be bothered to get documents for legal citizenshipship or residence in the country so we are going to make it legal and easy to get a driver’s license and other documents to avoid the consequences of the original illegal act.. What logic!

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  • kingluma

    a fundamental confusion in terminology exists throughout the article (and even in the headline) – the term “immigrant” or “immigration” is repeatedly used in a way that seems intended to refer specifically to undocumented or illegal immigrants.

    But actually it’s quite possible to be pro immigration and welcoming to immigrants without agreeing that non-citizens should be included in legal processes such as being offered drivers licenses.

    this article is not actually about “Why Immigrant-Friendly Legislation Has Stalled In Mass.” nor does it even demonstrate that this is true.

  • sjw81

    sorry, illegal aliens should be deported. no driving licenses, no college tuition in state , no free health care, no free public schooling, no free citizenship for thier newborns, no foodbanks or welfare, no taking jobs at lower wages from us citizens, no cutting in line for those waiting for citizenship like most of our ancesters did through ellis island or similar. what nation on earth allows this nonsense? if illegals were taking jobs from policticians at half thier wages then you would see action…

  • jane doe

    Well, to all the one crying that no other country would tolerate illegal, let me tell you a little story: my now husband (U.S. citizen, veteran) came to live with me in my country (germany), entered on a tourist visa, which required him to leave after three month (same for european tourists when they come here). Well, he didn’t leave. He was then “illegal”. We had no intentions on getting married (we knew we loved each other), so we had a child (which has dual citizenship due to me being german and him being american. I worked and supported my family. One day I decided to look into immigration for my then boyfriend and the immigration officer told us to just come in, with the birth certificate, Id’s and his passport. Well five minutes later we walked out and he was “legal”, totally free of charge. On the way out, he told us, he would have given him a visa, even earlier since americans aren’t really a problem and his decision) Now he was eligible for monies paid by government for staying at home with child and welfare/healthcare, since my income was below poverty line.
    While being pregnant with our second child we got married (he now worked and I had no healthcare). bla bla bla kid died when she was two, we coped by having a replacement. The kids got their U.S passports and birth certificate at the consulate. We came here, figuring immigration would be affordable. It is not. We were told by a lawyer that (at the time I still had the tourist visa) that it would cost thousands of dollars, which we don’t have. I never meant to break any laws, never worked here. I just stay at home with my american children (they don’t even know that they have dual citizenship, nor did I ever teach them german), while my husband works and does his national guard duties. For a while I did volunteer at a food bank and I am planning to that again once my youngest goes to school. Well, I know that there are bills and whatnot that allow me to become legal (married to citizen with kids, him veteran and still somewhat active in army), but having to decide whether to buy food or file for my status, the decision should be fairly clear. We don’t receive any benefits, I do not have healthcare (not that I would want it anyways), I don’t even know how to drive. But to be honest I would love to learn. It would be nice to drive my kids to school, go grocery shopping without my husband (since he works all week) and find more volunteering opportunities once kid is in school. I don’t really care if I never learned to drive, it would just be nice.
    I know a lot will yell at me, to get the f*** out. I shouldn’t be here. But keep in mind, if I leave, my husband will loose his job, go to jail for going a-wall with the army and then my children will most definitely be a tax burden as well as my husband. (foster care, jail).
    We, illegals aren’t all bad or out here to hurt your country. I honestly don’t see how I am hurting anybody. I can even truly say, that I really despise my country and hope that we at some point have the money to get my status fixed. The only thing I did, I took an american man off the dating market. I never took anybodies job, plus I am doing my best to learn the language. So, please excuse any errors.

    • Lawrence

      RIght, Americans are really a problem. That’s the reason he gave you and we have to believe that to be true. But you forgot to mention how Germany wants the boatloads of Northern Africans out of Europe. They are always the ones calling for Italy to deport them, before they make their way to Germany.

      So, your American boyfriend turned husband was OK. Others are the problem. The ones that, according to your immigration officer are the problems, they deport.

      PS Your English is fine.

  • On Guard!

    To be frank, @RepPaulRyan’s obsession with amnesty for illegal aliens seems a bit odd.

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