A state official urged lawmakers Wednesday to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, attempting to revive a long-running debate on an issue that has gained traction in other states, but not in Massachusetts.
Celia J. Blue, head of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, said the legislation would generate nearly $15 million in state revenue through license fees and other charges, plus $7.5 million in renewal fees every five years.
“This legislation is about public safety, and ensuring that the drivers on our roads have passed the tests and have the qualifications to be safe drivers,” Blue told a legislative committee. She predicted that the bills, filed in the House and the Senate, would lead to fewer car accidents and more drivers with insurance.
But Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said the proposal would reward people who violated federal immigration laws. He warned that granting licenses would not guarantee safer roads.
“We are a country of laws,” Hodgson told the committee. “If we begin to tell people that we’ll make exceptions for any group, then we have to honestly ask ourselves, do the laws really matter?”
Hundreds of supporters filled the hearing room and spilled into the halls as they waited more than two hours for the committee to consider the bills. The measures, sponsored by Senator Patricia Jehlen and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, both Democrats, would waive the requirement that applicants for a driver’s license present a Social Security number, the main hurdle for immigrants here illegally.
Backers hope to seize on momentum generated last year when eight states passed similar laws, including Vermont and Connecticut.
At the State House, immigrants here illegally said they must drive because they often work odd hours or in locations where buses and trains do not go. They also must drive to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, or to the hospital.
“We need it,” said Jose Manuel, a 50-year-old landscaper in Waltham here illegally from Guatemala, said of the bill, speaking on condition that his last name not be used.
Opponents said the measure would encourage others to come here illegally. Opposition to the issue gathered steam after the death of Matthew Denice, a Milford man struck and killed in 2011 allegedly by an immigrant here illegally.
Massachusetts has debated driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants for years, but the measure has made little progress. A House panel passed the measure in 2003, but the bill faded after Governor Mitt Romney said he opposed it.
Governor Deval Patrick has repeatedly said he supports such driver’s licenses, but in 2010 he said he could not act without changes in federal law. His office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, say figures from the Pew Research Center, with 120,000 to 200,000 in Massachusetts in 2010. Most of them are here legally.