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Lawmakers have long considered driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Will this be the year the bill passes?

The Massachusetts State House.
The Massachusetts State House.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For well over a decade, advocates have been pushing to allow people without legal immigration status to get Massachusetts driver’s licenses. This year, many longtime supporters of the idea think the proposal may finally get passed.

More than 100 lawmakers have signed onto bills that would make Massachusetts the 17th state to give undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain driving privileges. And numerous immigrants, labor leaders, mayors, and other advocates testified that they support the effort at an hours-long State House hearing on the issue Wednesday.

“This bill has a lot of momentum right now,” said Representative Christine P. Barber, a Somerville Democrat who introduced it in the House. “We have a lot more support from the Legislature than we’ve ever had.”

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Last year, a Senate version of the bill was reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Transportation on a party-line vote. But it was never taken up on the floor of either chamber.

In this two-year session, which began in January, proponents of the measure hope the early hearing held Wednesday afternoon will be a first step towards passage.

Advocates say allowing undocumented people to obtain a license will improve roadway safety and help immigrants by providing them an official ID along with the ability to drive legally.

But the bill’s opponents argue that those who entered the US illegally shouldn’t be granted an official state license, and warn the measure’s passage could lead to fraud.

Identical House and Senate bills filed in January would strike language barring undocumented immigrants from obtaining a license. The bills would prevent the Registry of Motor Vehicles from asking a license applicant about their immigration status.

Under the bill, in order to obtain a license, immigrants would need to meet all other existing licensure requirements and show proof of identity, date of birth, and Massachusetts residency.

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Unlike previous versions of the proposal, the bill introduced this session includes language specifying what documents are needed in order to obtain a license, rather than leaving it to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Immigrants without legal status in the US would be able to provide proof of identity and date of birth with a foreign passport or consular identification document that is no more than five years expired or a combination of other documents.

Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, another lead sponsor of the House legislation, testified Wednesday that the changes came following a “great deal of work” with the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, which has backed the bill.

An estimated 43,000 to 78,000 undocumented people would get licensed within the first three years of the law’s enactment, according to a 2020 report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Estimates from the Migration Policy Institute say the state is home to more than 200,000 undocumented people.

Lawmakers have been trying to pass similar legislation since at least 2003.

“I definitely feel like this is the year for the bill,” said Dálida Rocha, the political director at 32BJ SEIU and the co-chair of the Driving Families Forward Coalition, which has been advocating for the driver’s license proposal for several sessions.

Democratic leaders in both chambers, who control what bills are brought to the floor, have expressed openness to the measure. In a statement to the Globe, Senate President Karen E. Spilka wrote that she supports “the idea behind the Work and Family Mobility Act.”

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“. . .Individuals and families deserve to feel safe, and driver’s licenses for all qualified state residents is good for our economy and public safety,” she said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who assumed the gavel in December, pointed to a March statement in which the Quincy Democrat said he recognized “the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing and insurance structures,” but stopped short of endorsing the measure.

Farley-Bouvier said at a press conference before the hearing Wednesday that Mariano requested that the Transportation Committee co-chairs schedule an early hearing on the legislation.

But the Legislature may need a veto-proof majority to make the proposal law. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has opposed similar proposals in the past.

“Governor Baker supports existing laws in Massachusetts, enacted on a bipartisan basis, that ensure Massachusetts’ compliance with federal REAL ID requirements and enable those who demonstrate lawful presence in the United States to obtain a license,” Baker’s press secretary, Terry MacCormack, said in a statement on Monday.

State Senator Joseph A. Boncore, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee and a cosponsor of the Senate bill, said he hopes the Legislature will take up the proposal early in the session in order to provide enough time to override a potential veto.

“I am going to advocate strongly to move [it] . . . onto the floor of the Senate,” Boncore said.

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“I think there’s an overwhelming amount of support for this,” he added.

Supporters say the measure will help immigrants while improving roadway safety overall, pointing to data showing a reduction in hit-and-run crashes in states that have passed similar measures. Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“One of the things that COVID raised from all of this was that a driver’s license really is necessary in a lot of parts of the state to just get basic health care that we know is all necessary for all of our public health,” said Barber.

Many GOP lawmakers oppose the bill.

“I don’t think it helps public safety at all,” said state Representative David F. DeCoste, a Norwell Republican who sits on the Transportation Committee. “And just philosophically, I disagree with accommodating people who have chosen to break our laws with providing them driver’s licenses.”

State Senator Patrick M. O’Connor, the lone Senate Republican on the Transportation Committee, stopped short of saying he opposed the measure, but said he has “a lot of concerns” about the proposal. O’Connor said “we need to continue to provide more for those who are here undocumented,” including a pathway to citizenship, but he contended that states acting on their own could take “a tool out of the toolbox” of negotiations at the federal level.

“I believe that this bill might weaken the ability for our federal government to achieve true immigration reform, which is exactly what we need right now,” O’Connor said.

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Many Democrats concur that immigration reform is necessary at the federal level. But “in the meantime,” Farley-Bouvier said in an interview earlier this week, “there’s no reason for us in Massachusetts to wait for that, and to have our public safety at risk.”

“Driver’s licenses are squarely in the purview of states,” she said.


Jasper Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@globe.com.