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Demonstrators rally for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

Protesters marched Saturday from the Haymarket RMV to the State House steps to demand action to pass legislation allowing all state residents to get driver's licenses. The pandemic has highlighted the need for licenses, supporters say.
Protesters marched Saturday from the Haymarket RMV to the State House steps to demand action to pass legislation allowing all state residents to get driver's licenses. The pandemic has highlighted the need for licenses, supporters say.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Hundreds of demonstrators took to city streets on foot Saturday to push state lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a driver’s license for undocumented immigrants who can prove their identities.

The march and rally outside the State House marked the latest effort in a fight dating back to the early 2000s to give the state’s approximately 185,000 undocumented immigrants the chance to obtain driver’s licenses.

“Commuting to work should not be a crime. Bringing a child to school should not be a crime. Traveling to a doctor’s appointment should not be a crime,” Senator Edward J. Markey told the crowd, which marched to the State House from the Registry of Motor Vehicles Service Center at Haymarket.

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The event was organized by the Driving Families Forward coalition, which was established in 2018. The bill would allow Massachusetts residents to apply for a standard driver’s license by submitting two forms of identification, including at least one with a photograph and one with a date of birth.

Supporters said the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more important to give undocumented immigrants the chance to obtain driver’s licenses because drive-through systems are being used to administer COVID-19 tests, provide food, and distribute equipment to students participating in remote learning.

Many undocumented immigrants work in jobs deemed essential and should have a legal option for getting there by car instead of relying on public transportation systems where they could be exposed to COVID-19, advocates said.

“With this virus we have seen that immigrants are essential workers,” said Dalida Rocha, political director for Service Employees International Union 32BJ and a leader of the Driving Families Forward coalition. “If they are essential workers, why not give them the essential tools to do their essential duties?”

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. If authorized in Massachusetts, the coalition estimates 41,000 to 78,000 residents would get their license within three years.

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Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, is the bill’s lead sponsor.

“In any of the states that have passed this, the sky has not fallen,” Crighton said in an interview. “They’ve seen increased road safety. They’ve seen economic benefits. The time for action is now given the pandemic.”

The bill is being considered by the Senate Ways and Means Committee after clearing the Legislature’s Transportation Committee this year.

State Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, who leads the Senate Ways and Means Committee, didn’t respond Saturday to requests for comment.

In a statement, Senate President Karen Spilka said she believes "individuals and families deserve to feel safe, and driver’s licenses for all qualified state residents is good for our economy and public safety.”

“As the granddaughter of immigrants and a longtime supporter of this measure, I agree that we must continue to push for it," Spilka said. "Whether there is enough support for it to pass before the end of this session is still unclear, but I will continue to share the stories of the people I’ve met with who are advocating for this change.”

The group Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform has urged its supporters to oppose the measure.

Governor Charlie Baker has also routinely said he doesn’t support giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Under the proposal, a valid foreign passport or consular identification document would fulfill the requirement for one form of identification. The second form of identification could be a valid driver’s license from another state or territory, a Massachusetts identification card, an original birth certificate, or a valid employment authorization document issued by the federal government.

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The bill would not affect the federal Real ID program, which requires drivers to prove they are citizens or are lawfully in the country, as well as residents of Massachusetts, Rocha said.

The legislation has the support of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, the group’s president.

Many demonstrators at the State House event carried signs written in English and Spanish with messages such as, “Licensias si, promisas no,” “We are here to stay,” and “I stand with immigrants.”

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, said lawmakers need help advancing the legislation.

“We legislators cannot get this bill over the finish line alone,” she said.

In an interview before the event, a 34-year-old mother and undocumented immigrant from Mexico said not having a driver’s license made it difficult for her to escape an abusive relationship. The woman, who did not want to give her name, said she has to walk for miles to reach the closest bus stop to her home.

“I have young children and in the terrible cold or heat of summer, they would end up crying and I would end up crying myself just because of the hours of frustration it would take just to catch a bus,” she said in Spanish. An interpreter translated her remarks.

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A 55-year-old musician from Brazil said police had stopped him five or six times while he was driving without a license. Several years ago, he said he was arrested after a truck rear-ended his vehicle on the highway. The man, who gave his name only as Carlos, said the officer declined to seek medical attention for him.

“He arrested me instead of taking me to the hospital,” Carlos said in Portuguese. An interpreter translated his remarks.

Undocumented immigrants know it is illegal to drive without a license, he said, but many do it anyway because they need reliable transportation for work.

“They only use the car for work because they have to,” Carlos said. “They don’t want to do anything wrong.”

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


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.