Ana first came to New Bedford from Guatemala when she was just 18, when she began working in one of the busiest fishing ports in the country.
She said she put in long hours — sometimes as many as 80 hours a week — processing crabs, lobsters and other seafood. And Ana said she had to trudge to and from work on foot, even when it was pouring, because she didn't have a car or a driver's license.
But life will soon get a little easier for Ana and thousands of other unauthorized immigrants in Massachusetts. That’s because voters narrowly decided this week to uphold a law allowing them to get driver's licenses.
Residents approved Question 4 by a vote of 53.6% to 46.4%. The law will go into effect on July 1.
The slim margin shows many voters had mixed feelings about the proposal.
Dyanne Gardiner, in Quincy, weighed the arguments when she cast her ballot in person on Election Day.
She said she heard the pleas from law enforcement chiefs who argued it would make the roads safer, because it could spur immigrants already on the road to get insurance and pass a driving test. Some law enforcement officials also said the change would encourage immigrant victims or witnesses to cooperate with police.
But Gardiner also heard worries from opponents that the law could lead to non-citizens voting illegally.
"I'm afraid," Gardiner explained, "if they have a license they can vote, can’t they?"
Proponents point out that the law requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles to develop policies to ensure that undocumented people are not automatically registered to vote when they get a license. They and leaders of the Massachusetts secretary of state office, which oversees elections, also have noted the registry already has rules in place to make sure non-citizens who live here legally cannot vote when they sign up for a driver's license or state ID.
Adrian Ventura, a workers’ rights organizer in New Bedford, has been pushing for the law for 17 years.
Ventura said he's not surprised nearly half of voters opposed the change, attributing it to misinformation around voter fraud and animosity against immigrants.
“They want to see us walking around,” instead of behind the wheel, Ventura said in Spanish. "They want us below them. But the most important thing we have to remind them is that during the pandemic, we put food on their tables.”
Now that the law has passed, Ventura hopes more immigrants are able to drive legally and show people they are just as important here as their neighbors.
After the Legislature finally passed the bill earlier this year, it had to first survive a veto by Gov. Charlie Baker and then the ballot proposition this week.
Ana, the immigrant from New Bedford, welcomed the change. The single mother of two asked to only be identified by her nickname because she fears immigration authorities. Speaking in Spanish, she said her children always asked her why they couldn’t have a car like most other families.
Her son would say, “ ‘Oh God, mami, I’m tired of walking. Why don’t you buy a car?’ ”
She initially couldn’t afford a car and knew she couldn’t get a driver’s license. But Ana saved for years and eventually decided it was worth the risk to start driving illegally.
Finally, two years ago, she bought a Toyota Camry built in 2011 — the same year she arrived in the United States from Guatemala.
There’s a sticker on the front that says “Yo Amo Jesus” — I love Jesus. And inside, she keeps air fresheners and pink seat covers to keep the car feeling new.
She said she has been stopped by police only once. When she told the officer she didn't have a license, he appreciated her honesty and let her go.
Ana said the car means more than many can imagine to her family. She said her daughter told her: “Mami, when I grow up I’m going to work a lot to give you everything, because I asked you for a car and you bought us one.”
Ana still works in the fishing industry, packing lobsters at a plant in New Bedford. But now she no longer has to go everywhere on foot.
“Whenever I get into my car, I thank God because he gave me the opportunity to own a car,” she said. It's something she says never would have been possible in her native Guatemala. “I waited a long time — now the time has come, and I’m very happy.”
And now she’s even happier, because she’ll be able to get a driver's license — and no longer have to fear encountering police.
This article was originally published on November 10, 2022.
This segment aired on November 10, 2022.