Mass. drivers licenses will remain valid despite new Florida law targeting immigrants

Midday traffic on Storrow Drive on May 6, 2019. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Midday traffic on Storrow Drive on May 6, 2019. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

All Massachusetts driver's licenses will remain valid in Florida, despite the Sunshine State's new law prohibiting recognition of some licenses from states that allow undocumented immigrants to legally drive.

As of July 1, some licenses from Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and Vermont have been considered "invalid" in Florida, as a result of an immigration law Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed earlier this year. All four of these states issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"Florida will not accept driver licenses from those who cannot provide proof of lawful presence in the United States. By doing this, we commit to a safer Florida," said Florida Highway Patrol Executive Director Dave Kerner.

But for Massachusetts, which earlier this month began implementing a new law allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, the Florida law won't apply.

Bay State licenses have stayed off the list of those no longer accepted by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles because Massachusetts issues the same standard driver's license to everyone — regardless of their legal status in the U.S.

Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and Vermont created a different class of licenses which indicate that a person could not prove lawful presence. These licenses are specifically marked, indicating that they cannot be used for federal identification, and are intended only to allow driving privileges to card holders.

Because of the way the Florida law is written, the state can only ban licenses given exclusively to undocumented immigrants, according to Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokesperson Molly Best.

The new Massachusetts license law explicitly prohibits the Registry of Motor Vehicles from tracking data on whether a person applying for a license is documented or not.

"When processing an application for a Massachusetts license pursuant to this section the registrar shall not inquire about or create a record of an applicant's citizenship or immigration status," the law says.

RMV Registrar of Motor Vehicles Colleen Ogilvie told reporters earlier this week that she could not provide a breakdown of how many of the 2,800 learner's permits issued since the law took effect on July 1 were newly-eligible undocumented immigrants.

"We will not be able to answer that because the law prohibits us from looking at the data that way," Ogilvie said. "From our perspective, it is all people that have gotten a new permit, whether it's a 16-year-old for the first time, or an adult that is suddenly now obtaining a license."

Whether to issue the same, indistinguishable, standard license to everyone or create a new type of permit for undocumented immigrants was one of the major points of debate during the process of passing the so-called Work and Family Mobility Act last year.

Republicans filed several amendments that would have created a distinctive license for those without legal status. They argued that since standard licenses are used as identification for things other than just driving, such as voting, that it was important to make a visual distinction between the two permits.

Senate Democrats opposed the distinction.

Sarang Sekhavat, political director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), said that though the Florida law does not affect Massachusetts, advocates are worried about other states looking to ban licenses given to undocumented immigrants.

"This is certainly something that's on our radar, not just because of what Florida is doing, but, you know, there's a lot of efforts to do these kinds of things in other states as well, really just having a national impact on folks," Sekhavat said.

Gov. Maura Healey told reporters on Monday that the licenses given to undocumented immigrants should be valid in other states.

"These are Massachusetts driver's licenses," she said. "And they should be honored by other states."



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