Beacon Hill Hearing On Driver's Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants Spurs Debate

Proponents of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants rallied in front of the State House on Wednesday morning ahead of a hearing on the proposal. [Photo: Colin A. Young/SHNS]
Proponents of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants rallied in front of the State House on Wednesday morning ahead of a hearing on the proposal. (Colin A. Young/SHNS)

Supporters of a bill that would make driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants packed the State House's largest hearing room Wednesday to renew the push for a policy that has come up short in previous sessions and would need to be passed with enough support to survive a likely veto by Gov. Charlie Baker.

The legislation (H 3012/S 2061) filed by Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Christine Barber of Somerville, and Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, would permit all qualified residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for and receive a standard state license under the state's now-two-tiered system.

Fourteen states, including Connecticut and Vermont, have laws in place allowing all residents to acquire some type of license or permit regardless of immigration status, according to supporters. The Massachusetts legislation would not affect federal Real ID-compliant licenses, which require proof of citizenship or lawful residence as well as a Social Security number.

The issue has not previously gained traction on Beacon Hill, but progressive lawmakers this session have enthusiastically resurrected the push while immigration policy has bubbled back to the surface as a divisive and contentious issue at the federal level. Farley-Bouvier said Wednesday that she and the other sponsors are hoping to separate driving policy and immigration policy.

"We all know here that the Massachusetts Legislature does not have control over the very broken immigration system we have in this country. If the Massachusetts Legislature did have control of it, we would have fixed it years ago," she said at the hearing before the Transportation Committee on Wednesday morning. "What we know is what we can control and that is the laws of the commonwealth, and driver's licenses are the purview of the commonwealth. ... This is pretty basic, don't you think that every driver should have a vision test before they get behind the wheel of a car?"

Supporters of the legislation argued Wednesday that it would make the roads safer for everyone and ease the stress on the state's roughly undocumented immigrants — many of whom already drive without a license, training or insurance. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated Wednesday that there are 185,000 undocumented immigrants in the state.

"This is a public safety bill. The passage of this bill will mean that all drivers in the commonwealth will be trained, will be licensed and will be insured," Farley-Bouvier said. "When all drivers are trained, licensed and insured, all drivers, all passengers, all cyclists — Senator Brownsberger — and pedestrians are safer."

The bill also includes measures to protect privacy, like a provision that stipulates an individual's documents could only be released by the Registry of Motor Vehicles by subpoena or court order and that obtaining a license could not be the basis for prosecution.

Alberto, an undocumented immigrant who lives outside of Boston and has been driving for 17 of the 18 years he has been in the United States, said he wants to be an educated and licensed driver so he no longer has to worry about being pulled over for driving between his two jobs without a license.

"I need the opportunity to get the education, to get the knowledge, that I need to be on the road," he said at a press conference Wednesday morning outside the State House. "I'm already on the road."

The Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform said Wednesday that the bill has "nothing to do with safe driving" and instead is meant as a way "to make it easier for illegal aliens to live in our state."

"A whopping 200,000 illegal aliens already reside in Massachusetts — up one third from a decade ago — taking jobs that would otherwise go to lawful residents, and driving down the wages of low-skilled residents who are still working, because an oversupply of any resource reduces its value," the organization said in a press release. "Illegal immigration also leads to higher crime, reduced quality of health care for residents — especially low-income residents — and it crowds schools and lowers the quality of primary and secondary education. Illegal immigrants also use other social services, and drive up the cost of education, and drive up welfare costs — partly by putting Americans out of work."

Barber reminded the Transportation Committee that Massachusetts already issues driver's licenses to green card holders, foreign students and immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Obtaining a standard driver's license, she said, does not allow someone to vote, does not make them eligible for any public benefits they do not already receive and soon cannot be used to board an airplane.

Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters Wednesday that he does not support the legislation before the Transportation Committee.

"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 and a driver's license is a passport to a lot of things and I think our view is the law we passed, which basically says as long as you have lawful presence dictated by the federal government you can get a driver's license in Mass, that's the policy we support," Baker said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by his office.

The governor later added, "I'm pretty comfortable with where we are in Massachusetts and I wouldn't support additional legislation."

Supporters of the bills said they had more than 85 cosponsors in the Legislature, where there are 160 seats in the House and 40 in the Senate. A two thirds vote is required in each branch to override a veto.

The only person to testify in opposition during the first two hours of the committee's hearing Wednesday was Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.

"Let me be perfectly clear on this next point: passing these bills will make it even easier for criminal illegal aliens to evade law enforcement and victimize law-abiding U.S. citizens and Massachusetts residents. Making illegal immigrants eligible for official Massachusetts driver's licenses is not only wrong, but it's reckless. It will have a negative effect on the public safety of the people of the commonwealth," Hodgson said. He later added, "I've been in law enforcement for more than 30 years and I can safely say, without a doubt, that crime will rise, more innocent people will be victimized and more identities will be stolen if illegal immigrants have access to official driver's licenses."

Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Republican from Billerica who is not on the Transportation Committee, tweeted his opposition late Wednesday morning.

"I am absolutely opposed to this and am glad Governor Baker will veto if passed. #Billerica," Lombardo tweeted.

Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican who sits on the Transportation Committee, tweeted his opposition to the bill as the hearing began Wednesday and later added, "It is becoming very apparent that non citizens who have chosen to break our immigration laws are very inconvenienced by our laws governing drivers licenses."

The advocates that support the legislation — including the mayors of Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Lawrence and Lynn, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, labor union 32BJ and others — made the case Wednesday that the bill would benefit the state's economy.

Allowing undocumented immigrants to acquire driver's licenses could generate millions of dollars in revenue for both the state and for insurance companies, researchers at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said in a report released hours before Wednesday's hearing. Undocumented immigrants already contribute about $184.6 million in Massachusetts state and local taxes and having a license could increase many immigrants' earning power and their tax contributions.

MBPC President Marie-Frances Rivera described the legislation as "economically sensible, and simply the right thing to do" at the Wednesday morning press conference.

"Licensing drivers without documents not only allows them and their families to access basic necessities, it also allows employers to access more qualified workers in our tight labor market," Rivera said.

Passing the legislation would likely generate $6 million in state revenue over the first three years and lower each Massachusetts driver's insurance premium by about $20 per year, which Rivera pointed out is enough to buy flowers on Mother's Day. It would also generate an additional $62 million in revenue for insurance companies, the report found.

[Chris Lisinski of State House News Service contributed to this report.]



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