Beacon Hill set to vote on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants

Protesters outside of the Massachusetts State House advocate for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants (Tibisay Zea/El Planeta)
Protesters outside of the Massachusetts State House advocate for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants (Tibisay Zea/El Planeta)

This story originally appeared in Spanish on El Planeta.

For almost two decades, 70-year-old activist Gloria Ramirez said she has attended “every protest” to support a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses in Massachusetts. Now, the House of Representatives is planning to take up the bill for the first time, according to legislators.

“This is an urgent matter, we can’t wait any longer,” Ramirez said at the steps of the State House last week, where dozens of activists gathered to support the passage of the Work and Family Mobility Act.

Ramirez, who is undocumented, lives close to Worcester where she says she doesn’t have access to public transportation. Because she can’t walk long distances, she struggles with basic tasks like going to the grocery store, attending a doctor's appointment or picking up a prescription at the pharmacy.

"I’m always depending on someone else,” Ramirez said.

The Work and Family Mobility Act was approved by the Joint Committee on Transportation last week, and is expected to make it to the House floor for a vote. Rep. William Straus, the Chair of the committee, said “there is a very good chance it will receive sufficient votes to pass and be finally adopted.”

Speaker of the House Ronald Mariano said in a statement that he recognizes "the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing and insurance structures."

Ana Vivas, a spokeswoman for Mariano, said his office is working to secure the votes needed to override a possible veto from Gov. Charlie Baker, and they feel confident that the bill will advance.

Similar proposals have been approved in 16 states and the District of Columbia. But it's faced an uphill battle in Massachusetts.

The initiative was first introduced in 2007 by former state Rep. and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. It was approved two years ago by the transportation committee, but never advanced beyond that.

According to the Driving Families Forward Coalition, this year the proposal has more support among lawmakers than ever before.

“We made some changes and feel confident that it will pass,” said Pablo Ruiz of SEIU 32BJ, a union that is part of the coalition.

But the Legislature may need a veto-proof majority for the proposal to become law, as Baker has opposed similar bills in the past. Baker has expressed concern that it would conflict with federal Real ID regulations.

"Governor Baker supports existing laws in Massachusetts, enacted in a bipartisan manner, that ensure Massachusetts' compliance with federal Real ID requirements and allow those who demonstrate lawful presence in the United States to obtain a license," he said in a statement.

However, said Ruiz, this time the bill clarifies that undocumented immigrants could only access the standard ID and not the Real ID.

"Changes to the current law would be minimal, and Massachusetts would continue to comply with federal Real ID regulations," Ruiz said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Straus said he wouldn’t assume that the governor will reject the proposal this time.

“He will read it and will notice the strong safety measures [...] we'll send the bill to him hoping to have the governor's support,” he said.

Those who favor the bill point to safety and public health reasons.

“When everyone learns the same traffic rules, passes the same test, obtains a license, registers and insures their vehicle, this means greater security for everyone,” Ruiz said.

In Connecticut, where a similar bill was implemented in 2015, hit-and-run crashes dropped 9% between 2016 and 2018.

The proposal has the unanimous endorsement of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association (MMCCPA), whose members have helped revise previous versions of the bill.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, the association's president, said the Work and Family Mobility Act would help to build trust between the police and “honest people who contribute to the success of our communities.”

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, another member of the group, said this bill would make police work easier.

“We’ve all been in those situations where we’ve had these car stops,” she said, referring to undocumented drivers who get stopped by the police. “We don’t want this heightened stress, where it’s completely unnecessary. If we don’t have [someone’s identity], it just makes our job really challenging.”

The proposal also enjoys the support of healthcare professionals, insurance companies, Attorney General Maura Healey, and a group of 58 individual police leaders, state sheriffs and district attorneys.

Healthcare experts also mentioned the social determinants of health as an argument to favor the proposal. Dr. Elizabeth Eagleson, who is a primary care physician at the Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield, said many of her undocumented patients have been displaced to remote areas with little or no public transportation, so they had to delay their COVID-19 vaccine doses.

“It becomes a public health problem,” she said.

Opponents of the bill argue that those who entered the country illegally should not receive an official state license and believe that it could lead to fraudulent activity.

None of the four Republicans who are part of the Joint Transportation Committee responded to a request for comment.

State Rep. David F. DeCoste, a Republican of Norwell, told The Boston Globe last year he he doesn't believe providing the licenses “helps public safety at all. And philosophically, I don't agree with accommodating people who have chosen to break our laws by giving them driver's licenses.”

Studies estimate that over 200,000 immigrants in Massachusetts lack authorized immigration status. With the Work and Family Mobility Act, an estimated 41,000 to 78,000 of these residents would obtain licenses within the first three years of implementation, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Another concern about the implementation of this bill is if it would allow federal immigration agencies to identify undocumented residents. Activists said the bill prevents the RMV from sharing undocumented driver’s registries with federal agencies.

In front of the State House, Ramirez feels optimistic, but she also expressed her disappointment.

“We were the essential workers during the pandemic, we pay our taxes every year, and now we can’t even drive to get medicine in the pharmacy," she said. "It’s unfair.”

Headshot of Tibisay Zea

Tibisay Zea Cognoscenti contributor
Tibisay Zea is a Venezuelan journalist based in Boston.



More from WBUR

Listen Live