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After years of debate, Mass. Senate passes bill to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented people

By Samantha Gross | May 05, 2022

After years of debate, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday passed a bill to allow people without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses.

The vote, 32-8, was enough to override a possible veto from Governor Charlie Baker and came after the House passed a similar bill with a similar veto-proof margin earlier this year.

Because the Senate’s version was slightly different, the driver’s license bills will have to be reconciled before final votes to send them to the desk of the Republican governor, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to such a measure.

Though a recent poll found residents to be split on the idea, the bill’s passage was received with chants and yelling from supporters in the chamber’s public galleries and assurances from lawmakers that after many years of debate, they’ve crafted legislation that addresses some of Baker’s concerns

“The bill has improved over time,” said bill sponsor Senator Brendan P. Crighton, who emphasized he worked closely with both immigrant communities and law enforcement groups to craft the most recent iteration. “We made sure there will not be any unintended consequences that he was afraid of.”

Outside the State House, supporters beat plastic drums, repeated si se puede, or “yes we can,” and sang along to music reverberating from a portable speaker. Some drivers passing by on Beacon Street honked their horns and revved their engines in support.

Attendee Omar Contreras, 39, led the group in chants:

“La casa de estado es la casa de comunidad . . . ¿Que queremos? ¡Licencias! ¿Cuando? ¡Ahora!”

“The State House is the community’s house . . . What do we want? Licenses! When? Right now!”

The measure’s passage, after years of failed advocacy framing the issue as one of social justice, came after language was tightened to draw more support from law enforcement. The bill was backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police.

If the bill becomes law, people without legal immigration status could obtain a driver’s license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport and birth certificate or a passport and a marriage certificate. The legislation clarifies that people who do not have proof of lawful presence will not automatically be registered to vote under a current state law that registers those seeking driver’s licenses who are of voting age.

The bill’s passage would mean Massachusetts would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia, where undocumented people are allowed to receive driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The new ID requirements would take effect on July 1, 2023.

In addition to the bill itself, senators Thursday also voted on about two dozen amendments, rejecting several from the chamber’s top Republican who wants to create an entirely new license type with different requirements. Many others were withdrawn from consideration, leaving the bill largely untouched.

Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr said his amendments were meant to “prevent problems” with the bill’s implementation. They would have barred undocumented residents from seeking licenses but make them eligible for “driver privilege cards” that could not be used as government-issued identification and would be a different color than Massachusetts driver’s licenses.

Another one of Tarr’s amendments would have required the licenses to say “not eligible to vote” written in “bold text.” The phrasing echoed a qualm from Baker, who told reporters Monday that the legislation doesn’t go far enough to ensure that undocumented residents don’t unlawfully register to vote.

“It basically means, in some respects, the Registry is going to be flying blind with respect to what it issues when it issues these licenses,” Baker said Thursday morning, referencing the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ role in voter registration. “And it puts tremendous pressure on cities and towns to do the cleanup on the back end.”

Crighton said, however, that some non-US citizens who cannot vote already are eligible for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts, like green card holders, DACA recipients, or people in the United States on student visas.

“Massachusetts and the RMV have been doing this for some time,” the Lynn Democrat said. “There are safeguards in place. Today, you have to be a citizen to vote. Once this bill passes, you will still have to be a citizen.”

To make their vote secure from Baker’s potential veto, senators had to pass the bill with a two-thirds majority — 27 votes that senators comfortably surpassed.

The eight votes against the measure were the chamber’s three Republicans and Democratic Senators Nick Collins of South Boston, Anne M. Gobi of Spencer, Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton, Walter F. Timilty of Milton, and John C. Velis of Westfield.

Democratic candidates for governor Attorney General Maura Healey and Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz both support the legislation, while Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty are both against it.

Healey, speaking at an unrelated campaign event on Thursday, said she supports the bill “as a matter of public safety.”

”I support it because it’s also a matter of fairness,” she said. “Having people out there driving who are not insured, who did not participate in driver’s training, does nothing for public safety. It actually hurts public safety.”

On the Senate floor Thursday, Chang-Díaz called the bill “a huge step forward for workforce justice in our state.”

“It has been a long, long road for this bill,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat said. “This bill means trust and dignity for immigrants in our state who lack federal status.”

Advocacy groups like Movimiento Cosecha and 32BJ SEIU are part of a coalition of 270 organizations that have long backed the bill, citing a need for more safety and access for immigrant communities.

In an interview, David Rolando Oliva, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha Massachusetts, said transportation remains a difficult issue for immigrants, especially in places like New Bedford, where he moved more than a decade ago. It can take an hour and sometimes more than $5 to go somewhere that would be a 20-minute drive, like work, the store, or a doctor’s appointment.

“All the driving is not easy. I’ll tell you that much, it is not easy,” Oliva, 64, told the Globe in Spanish. “All immigrants should be able to have a license to solve the problems.”

Pablo Ruiz, political director of the property service workers union 32BJ SEIU, said if passed, Massachusetts would see positive effects he said other states with such laws have experienced, such as a decline in hit-and-run car crashes, more trust in police, and safer driving more generally.

“We are excited about this historic vote,” Ruiz said in an interview. “The time is long overdue.

But others cite a fear of unlawful access to the polls as a reason to hesitate.

A recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts residents found that a narrow plurality of respondents — about 47 percent — opposed the legislation. About 46 percent were in favor, and 7 percent were undecided.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.

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