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A recent fatal accident allegedly involving an illegal immigrant driver has put immigration back on the State House agenda. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has filed a bill to stiffen penalties and curb benefits for immigrants living here illegally.
The bill would increase fines for anyone driving without a license and make it harder for people without licenses to register their cars.
"Clearly the penalties that are outlined under current statutes don't go far enough to deter people from driving without a license,” said Rep. George Peterson Jr., R-Grafton. "So this will increase the penalties, hopefully to change [the] kind of thought process."
Lawmakers sponsoring the new measure say recent high-profile driving incidents involving illegal immigrants mobilized them and their constituents, especially the case in Milford last month. An illegal immigrant there was charged with vehicular homicide and driving while drunk after allegedly running over a motorcyclist with his truck.
The bill also sets up a complaint line for residents to report people they believe are working illegally and makes it illegal to grant immigrant students in-state tuition if they're in the country without papers.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, says those incidents compelled legislators to rework an immigration bill that passed in the Senate in 2010.
"What's changed is that we have a more unified effort in the House and Senate and that's why we're going to move forward," Tarr said.
The bill doesn't just focus on driving. It also sets up a complaint line for residents to report people they believe are working illegally. It also makes it illegal to grant immigrant students in-state tuition if they're in the country without papers.
As it is, these students don't get a break on tuition, but this measure would codify that policy into law.
Lawmakers said they were careful, however, to write a bill that was clearly within state jurisdiction. They said they didn’t want to confront the federal legal challenges that laws passed in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama have run into.
But immigrant advocates still have trouble with the measure.
"The bill is so far-reaching into areas that have nothing to do with the problems that were identified," said Frank Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. He says the bill goes too far by setting up the hotline and banning in-state tuition.
"To try and ban that in this bill seems to be taking a real problem and blowing it out of proportion," Soults said.
Soults says lawmakers should work on reforming federal immigration laws rather than scapegoating immigrants.
Gov. Deval Patrick wouldn't comment on the bill, since he says he hasn't read it.
"I'm not really interested in legislation that just legislates things we're already doing,” Patrick said. "If this actually breaks new ground and makes a real contribution and does something that state government should be doing, as opposed to what the federal government should be doing, then I expect to be able to support it, but we'll have to see.”
It's not clear when, or if, this immigration bill will come up for debate. But it is clear that lawmakers and officials are feeling around for solutions to what they consider local immigration problems.
This program aired on September 27, 2011.
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