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Lawmakers reject driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants

A committee of Massachusetts lawmakers rejected a bill Monday that would have granted driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, leaving another crop of gubernatorial candidates to debate the hot-button issue before the November elections.

Advocates for immigrants had hoped the Joint Committee on Transportation, dominated by Democrats, would follow a recent national trend and approve the bill.

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Instead, the panel voted overwhelmingly to send the measure to study, effectively killing hopes for its passage.

“It’s a huge, huge disappointment,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, a statewide group. “Members are more worried about the safety of their seats than the safety of the residents of Massachusetts.”

Of the 20 committee members, nine lawmakers voted to send the bill to study, another four opposed the measure, three voted in favor of it, and one abstained. Three lawmakers did not vote, said Heather Friedmann, research director for the Transportation Committee.

Representative William Straus, cochairman of the committee and a Democrat from Mattapoisett, did not respond to requests for comment Monday. He also declined to immediately release the names of lawmakers and how they voted.

Nationwide, 11 states allow immigrants here illegally to obtain some form of driver’s licenses, and eight of those, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, passed the measures over the past year, according to the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit that tracks such legislation. Two New England states, Vermont and Connecticut, are among those that passed the measures.

In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick has long supported driver’s licenses for immigrants here illegally, but a bill has never materialized for him to sign.

In March, hundreds of people, mostly supporters, packed a State House hearing room saying the “Safe Driving Bill” would improve public safety by ensuring that all drivers are trained, tested, licensed, and insured.

State officials said the measure would also have generated nearly $15 million in state revenue through license fees and other charges, plus $7.5 million in renewal fees every five years.

But opponents said the bill would reward immigrants who broke the law. Critics have repeatedly pointed out that an illegal immigrant from Ecuador was driving drunk and without a license in 2011 when he struck and killed motorcyclist Matthew Denice in Milford.

Others predicted that the licenses would encourage illegal immigrants to stay permanently, and expressed skepticism that the measure would improve public safety.

“This bill will degrade the integrity of the Massachusetts license as a form of identification,” Steve Kropper, cochairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, said in an e-mail.

The last time a licensing bill advanced in the Legislature was in 2003, when it was voted out of committee, then faltered when Governor Mitt Romney, vowed to reject it.

With no resolution, driver’s licenses have reemerged as a wedge issue in the gubernatorial race as Congress remains mired in debate over the nation’s immigration laws.

Among the Democrats running for governor, Treasurer Steve Grossman and former Medicare chief Donald Berwick lamented the bill’s failure Monday.

“We need to embrace and help these people who live among us,” Berwick said.

Grossman criticized rival Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, for waffling on the issue.

“This is overwhelmingly a public safety issue,” Grossman said, adding, “I have a hard time understanding why the attorney general, Martha Coakley, doesn’t see this in the same way as I do.”

Coakley said through a spokeswoman that she is open to licenses for immigrants, but stopped short of supporting them. She has opposed licenses for illegal immigrants in the past.

Republican Charlie Baker, who has long opposed licenses for illegal immigrants, said Congress should resolve the immigration issue.

“I think it’s really hard for states to solve this on their own,” Baker said.

The bills, 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 key barrier for illegal immigrants.

Massachusetts is home to 120,000 to 200,000 illegal immigrants, up to one-fifth of the nearly 1 million immigrants in the state, according to the Pew Research Center.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.

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