Is the coronavirus pandemic going to become the catalyst for the Commonwealth to finally allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses?
It’s been more than a decade since legislation was first filed that would let Massachusetts residents without legal immigration status apply for driver’s licenses. Over and over again, it has failed to pass. But the COVID-19 pandemic has given the issue fresh urgency. A recent Center for American Progress study showed that nearly 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce are considered essential workers — many of whom have to drive to work. For the sake of a healthy economic recovery, and a decisive victory against the virus, Massachusetts should prioritize the measure and allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license.
“The benefits cross all policy issues: from public health to racial justice, to workforce mobility, to our moral responsibility, to economic recovery, and to public safety,” said state Senator Brendan Crighton, a cosponsor of the most recent version of the legislation, filed last month, in a recent press conference via zoom. The bill allows any resident, even without legal status to be in the country, to apply for a license if they present other identity documents, such as a foreign passport, a consular identification card, or other authorized documents outlined in the bill.
Here’s why this measure is important from a public health angle: Last fall, a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Nantucket was linked to a few immigrant workers who were sharing one car, according to a GBH news report. The island’s health director told GBH that driver’s licenses are like a shield against the virus.
Apart from containing outbreaks, authorizing people who need to drive to do so legally saves lives and spares people from unresolved accidents. In jurisdictions where undocumented drivers are licensed to drive legally, outcomes speak for themselves. California saw up to 10 percent fewer hit-and-run crashes per year, while Connecticut experienced a 9 percent decrease in similar crashes. A 2018 national study that used data from 12 states, and the District of Columbia, where undocumented drivers are allowed to get licenses found that undocumented women were able to increase their work hours by 4 percent.
Governor Charlie Baker has opposed the legislation, citing concerns around proving identity, which other states have shown can be done through other secure means. Their experience demonstrates that this is an overdue protection for all drivers on the road. Other Republican governors, in Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico, have recognized the need and signed similar measures. Vermont and Connecticut also let undocumented immigrants apply for licenses to drive. If Massachusetts passes this bill, it will become the 17th state to do so, along with D.C. and Puerto Rico.
Giving more people permission to drive also makes fiscal sense. Of the estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants who live in Massachusetts, between 40,000 and 78,000 of them would seek to obtain a driver’s license if the legislation passes, according to a report from MassBudget. The same report estimates that these newly licensed drivers would bring $5 million in additional tax revenue per year. And because more people are insured, insurance holders in general could see a decrease in their annual premiums by $20.
The bill might finally be poised to pass the Legislature. In a statement sent via e-mail, House Speaker Ronald Mariano acknowledged the public safety benefit of the bill. “As the former chair of the Financial Services Committee, with experience working on auto insurance legislation, I recognize the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing, and insurance structures,” Mariano said.
A driver’s license confers its holder with nothing more than the ability to drive safely — you study the laws and rules of the road, take the test, and if you pass you obtain the license. All lawmakers in Massachusetts ought to understand this, including the governor. The Commonwealth can and should become the 17th state to enact this common-sense measure and give prospective undocumented drivers the ability to apply for a license.
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