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Pandemic Pushes Debate Over Driver’s Licenses

By Chris Burrell | Nov 17, 2020

Hailed as heroes during the pandemic, essential workers have cared for the elderly in nursing homes and kept food supplies going from farms to supermarkets. But thousands of these workers in Massachusetts are also undocumented immigrants facing a hard choice — risk driving illegally to keep these essential jobs, or stop working.

With immigrant communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, the debate about whether to allow unauthorized immigrants in the state to get driver’s licenses is heating up.

Some lawmakers on Beacon Hill are hoping to vote this session on a bill that would make this legal, as has happened in 15 other states and D.C., including neighbors Connecticut, New York and Vermont. The bill successfully came out of transportation committee in February and has 88 co-sponsors. However, anti-immigrant groups along with the state GOP have pushed back, and Gov. Baker has threatened to veto it.

Massachusetts is home to an estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants, 70,000 of whom are expected to apply for a driver’s license if the bill goes through. State Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn), who co-wrote it, said it is important to pass now because workers who have shown up during the pandemic are being put at added risk by not having legal access to driving.

“Many of these folks who have been hailed and praised are essential workers, whether they’re in the grocery store or helping take care of our loved ones in long-term care facilities,” Crighton said. “These are the folks on the front lines. How do we reward them? We tell them that they have to break the law to drive.”

And some argue that not allowing undocumented workers to drive legally is increasing their risk of getting the virus; in Nantucket, a spike of 15 COVID cases earlier this fall was linked to immigrant workers sharing cars. Roberto Santamaria, the island’s health director, said carpooling is common among this workforce.

“They were picking up coworkers from multiple sites [and] were spreading COVID between the four of them in a single vehicle,” said Santamaria. “Then those four would take it home to their spouses and family.”

Arguing that Nantucket’s economy would grind to a halt without its immigrant workforce, Santamaria sees driver’s licenses as a tool for fighting the virus' spread.

“Not many people would think that this 2-inch by 3-inch piece of plastic would be considered a public health intervention, but it is,” he said.

The Legislature’s health equity task force last month also threw its support behind Crighton’s bill, pointing to COVID’s disproportionate health and economic impact on Black and Latino residents.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) — who is on the task force — said allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses will mitigate infection and boost job opportunities in immigrant communities.

“The granting of those driver's licenses is a big lever to enable individuals and families to earn financial capacity that we're trying to get to them via state spending,” she said.

One of those immigrants relying on her car for economic survival is Erica, who asked that GBH News use her first name only.

‘It’s impossible for me to have same life without the car,” she told GBH News on a recent Monday morning. “Without the driver license or not, I am driving.”

From her home just north of Boston, she drives hundreds of miles a week — to clean houses, to make meals for schools, to volunteer at a food pantry in Boston and to take her daughter to school and doctor’s appointments. She’s worried people will judge her for breaking the law to drive.

“Don’t see me or see us like a criminal,” she said. “We’re not. We have a family, have dreams.”

The risk Erica faces is real. If she decides to drive, she can be pulled over by police, arrested and maybe even deported. And if she doesn’t drive, she loses work or faces possible exposure to COVID on a crowded bus or train or by carpooling with others.

Despite this predicament facing immigrants like Erica, Gov. Charlie Baker hasn’t budged from his stance a year ago.

“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,” he told New England Cable News last year. Other critics say immigrants without legal status don’t deserve privileges like driving.

States like Connecticut have found no cases of fraud connected to their driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants. And dozens of urban police chiefs in Massachusetts back the proposal here, citing the public safety benefit of drivers who have to pass a test to get a license.

Meanwhile, police keep on catching people driving without licenses — a crime under state law.

Police statewide issued more than 20,000 violations for unlicensed driving last year, according to data obtained by GBH News. It’s the second most common criminal offense in Massachusetts courts, a recent study by Harvard Law School found.

State courts don’t track how many of the people charged with unlicensed driving are immigrants without lawful presence. But five years after Connecticut allowed undocumented immigrants to drive legally, courts there saw unlicensed driving cases fall by more than a third: from nearly 16,000 cases a year to 10,449, GBH News found.

In several district courts, unlicensed driving cases take up a fifth of the annual caseload, according to court data. Chris Adams, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said such cases needlessly clog up local courts.

“Our criminal court systems are just bursting at the seams,” he said. “You can really bring back the integrity to a misdemeanor court if you just decriminalized a lot of these laws like driving without a license.”

Unless the law is changed in Massachusetts, contact with police and courts brings a lot of stress and costs hundreds of dollars in fines for people who can afford them the least. These worries are only compounded by the pandemic.

Maria and her husband Jose are Salvadoran immigrants in Springfield. He’s a builder, and she was a farmworker before taking a job with a workers’ rights nonprofit. Scared of riding buses, they drive a car. But they’ve been pulled over several times by police, one of whom ordered them and their little boy out of the car alongside the highway.

“When we drive, we're scared that we could get stopped. We could get our car taken away. We could get arrested,” said Maria, who also asked that GBH News use her first name only. “But we have to bring our children to school. We have to bring them to their appointments. We need to drive.”

photo by Meredith Nierman / GBH News


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