For the first time, the Massachusetts House of Representatives will debate and vote on a bill Wednesday that would allow residents without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses.
The measure’s expected passage, after years of failed advocacy framing the issue as one of social justice, comes both as the body has shifted leftward, and the legislation has been tightened to draw more support from conservative members — and from law enforcement.
The current version, which requires that undocumented residents prove their identity with documents such as a foreign passport and birth certificate, is backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police. That group helped supporters meet with lawmakers and weighed in on language that would affect not only the roughly 250,000 unauthorized immigrants who live in the state but also the law enforcement officers tasked with identifying drivers.
Lawrence Police Chief Roy P. Vasque, who serves as the vice president of that coalition, said he opposed the bill in years past. This year, however, the identification requirements made the difference. And he believes his group’s support will, too.
“I can’t say for sure if they would be able to march on without our support, but I certainly think it helps,” he said.
William McGrath, the police chief in Wrentham, also got behind the bill this year.
“We are not going to correct the immigration crisis by focusing on someone who is here,” he said. “Focusing on them as the problem is kind of short sighted.”
The police support, advocates say, makes all the difference for a proposal that in different forms has cleared a joint committee but never had a vote in the House, seen as the less liberal chamber.
“If they are confident that this is language that would be better for the safety of the public, we are confident too,” said Lenita Reason, cochair of a coalition lobbying for the bill.
The latest version requires that undocumented residents prove their identity and explicitly says that they will not be registered to vote as a result — language that supporters say has helped bring more members on board.
Passage in the House, while necessary, may not be sufficient, some lawmakers believe. Leaders were still working Monday to secure enough votes to override a potential veto from Governor Charlie Baker, who has opposed versions of the bill in the past.
And not every Democrat is on board.
“I think I have trouble with the concept of providing a privilege to people who are not properly here,” said Dartmouth Representative Chris Markey. “There is not a constitutional right to [a driver’s license].”
Lawmakers need a two-thirds majority, 105 votes, to overcome a veto and push a bill into law. The 160-seat House currently has 157 members.
Baker indicated Monday that his stance on such legislation hasn’t changed.
If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia as jurisdictions that allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Supporters maintain that allowing more people to get licenses would improve public safety by ensuring that drivers have the proper training and insurance. It also would deter people from leaving the scene of an accident out of fear of being caught driving without a license, they argue.
Before 2001, the national trends were moving toward allowing undocumented people to get driver’s licenses, the Globe reported at the time. But in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, stricter Registry of Motor Vehicles rules were put in place and efforts to license people without legal immigration status fizzled.
In 2003, a Massachusetts House panel green lit a measure to give undocumented immigrants a path toward getting a license, but then-governor Mitt Romney came out against it, essentially putting the kibosh on the debate.
When Deval Patrick became governor, his office released a report proposing changes that would benefit immigrants and refugees, including driver’s licenses for undocumented people.
In the years that followed, more legislation was proposed without success. When Baker took office in 2015, he came out against any plans to give licenses to undocumented immigrants.
This year’s bill would allow people who do not have a Social Security number to obtain a driver’s license by providing certain documents that prove their identity, such as a passport and a birth certificate or a passport and a marriage certificate, and clarifies that people who do not have proof of lawful presence will not automatically be registered to vote under a current state law that registers those seeking driver’s licenses.
The new ID requirements would take effect on July 1, 2023.
The tweaks also garnered support from insurance companies, law enforcement, and even lawmakers who were skeptical in the past. So far, 41 police chiefs, eight county sheriffs, eight district attorneys and Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat running for governor, have expressed support for the bill.
Democratic state Representatives Alan Silvia of Fall River and Paul F. Tucker of Salem said that talking with local law enforcement bolstered their “yes” votes this year.
“I feel better about it,” said Silvia, who was a Fall River police officer for two decades. “I was hesitant in the past and I am glad there had been some changes made.”
Tucker, a former Salem police chief, said he was satisfied with the language and the implementation he’s seen in other states that have passed similar laws.
“This is simply for road safety and it doesn’t come with any other benefits or anything else,” he said. “We need to listen to our police chiefs.”