Advocates for undocumented immigrant drivers have tried and failed for years to make Massachusetts a place where all of its residents, regardless of their immigration status, can obtain a driver’s license.
After all, isn’t it in the interest of all residents to have everyone who’s behind the wheel know the rules of the road, pass a driving test, and then be licensed accordingly?
It’s why 16 states and the District of Columbia already allow immigrants without legal status to get a driver’s license if they meet certain conditions. But here in Massachusetts, which loves to bill itself as a beacon of progressive policies, it is baffling that this sensible public safety measure has proved to be a major battle. How much longer is it going to take? What else is there to debate about the Work and Family Mobility Act’s evidence-based merits?
Allowing all residents of a jurisdiction to obtain a license to drive is a matter of public safety, not immigration policy or partisan politics — hence the endorsement of the of the bill by Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association two years ago.
“In order for our state’s police officers to best do their jobs and remain safe while doing so, they need to be able to identify who’s behind the wheel,” said the president of the association, Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, in a statement to the State House News Service in early 2020, when his organization announced its support for the bill.
The Work and Family Mobility Act is currently in the transportation committee. The deadline for the committee to advance the bill is Feb. 2. The bill would let individuals who lack proof of lawful presence or who cannot obtain a Social Security number apply for a standard driver’s license if they are able to show proof of identity — via a non-US passport, a foreign birth certificate, or a consular identification card — and of residency.
“For anyone out there that is contemplating not supporting this bill, that should be a big plus that you should look at — that we are behind it and that we are confident in the identification process,” Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque, who is vice president of MMCC, said last summer in a virtual press conference about the documents required as proof of identity in the proposal. “I don’t know how this bill cannot be pushed forward.”
Last year, MassBudget estimated that between 45,000 and 85,000 drivers would obtain a license within the first three years if the bill passes. That would represent an extra $5 million in state revenue “for licenses, inspections, and other services,” according to MassBudget. Then there is the cascading effect in other parts of the economy. “Boosting workers’ ability to work also boosts the amount their families pay in taxes,” read the report. “Licensing more drivers allows businesses to attract workers they cannot currently access.”
About the measure’s evidence-based merits: Places where undocumented drivers are licensed have seen a reduction of hit-and-run accidents and lower car insurance premiums for all drivers.
Some advocates worry about sharing driver’s license data between state and federal agencies. It’s a valid concern that has a solution: Build proper safeguards around the data. That’s what the bill in Massachusetts does — it prohibits the registrar of motor vehicles from sharing or allowing access to records except when there is a judicial warrant.
Beacon Hill leaders seem to agree, at least in concept. Senate President Karen Spilka’s office sent a statement similar to one she shared last year with the Globe, saying that Spilka supports “the idea behind the Work and Family Mobility Act” and that she looks “forward to hearing more from my colleagues on this matter.” A spokesperson for House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a text that Mariano “is working on securing enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto before bringing it to the floor.”
On driver’s licenses for undocumented foreigners, the time for words without action has long passed.
At a time when America has been closing its immigration doors — the flow of immigrants coming to this country has been declining since 2017 — it is crucial for the Commonwealth to enact policies that embrace foreigners who are already here, contributing to our economy.
Good bills often idle on Beacon Hill, and this one, perhaps because it would generate a knee-jerk anti-immigrant reaction, has remained stubbornly in limbo. But there’s a simple reality to consider: Undocumented workers are here in abundance and often driving to their jobs. Let’s make our roads safer for everyone in the Commonwealth.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.