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In historic vote, Mass. House passes bill to allow driver’s licenses for residents without legal immigration status

Lawmakers entered the chamber of the House of Representatives at the Massachusetts State House.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file

The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday that would allow residents without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses. Buoyed by support from law enforcement, the measure won enough votes in the heavily Democratic chamber to overcome a potential veto from Republican Governor Charlie Baker.

The tally was 120-36 and came after a two-hour debate on the bill, which would allow residents to prove their identity with documents such as a foreign passport and birth certificate.

The legislation explicitly says that people without legal immigration status will not be registered to vote as a result of getting a driver’s license — language that supporters say has helped bring more members on board.

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There was applause in the chamber after the vote was announced.

Advocates have been working on this issue for nearly two decades, and co-chairs of a coalition that pushed for the bill’s passage said in a statement after the vote that the legislation not only addresses public safety but holds out “the prospect of transformational change for undocumented immigrants across the Commonwealth.”

“We now urge Senate leadership to quickly take up this vital legislative proposal, the Senate to pass it, and Governor Baker to follow the overwhelming consensus with his signature, turning the Work and Family Mobility Act into law,” Lenita Reason and Roxana Rivera wrote.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a statement Wednesday that she is a longtime supporter of such an effort, and that she “very much look[s] forward to having further discussions with our membership on this issue.”

During the debate, the House voted down a handful of amendments. Other amendments were withdrawn before they were presented.

The 160-seat House currently has 156 members.

Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a lead sponsor of the bill, said there were still people who were undecided walking into the chamber Wednesday.

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House Speaker Ronald Mariano said legislative leaders had a host of issues to address, while also ensuring the House had built a veto-proof majority before passing it.

“The main thing about doing this is you want to do it to get it done . . . To get licenses in the hands of people,” the Quincy Democrat told reporters outside the House chamber. “That’s why it takes so long.”

If Baker vetoes the bill, and “we can’t override, what do you have then? You have nothing,” Mariano added. “You have a lot of people wasting a lot of time . . . I wasn’t going to take the chance.”

Mariano said he’s confident the Senate can also pass the bill with enough support.

The bill had never emerged for a vote in the House before, including last session when it was reported favorably by a joint legislative committee. Asked why he as majority leader under then-Speaker Robert DeLeo didn’t make a similar push as he did now, Mariano indicated it wasn’t his decision to make.

”There’s only one quarterback, only one person calling the play,” he said. “Now I am. I wasn’t back then.”

The bill now goes to the Senate for a vote. If the Senate passes the bill and both chambers send it to the governor, who has opposed versions of such legislation in the past, Baker can sign it or veto it, among other options.

In a statement, a spokesman for Baker said Wednesday the governor supports “existing laws in Massachusetts,” and referred to a bipartisan bill passed in 2016 that ensured the state’s compliance with the federal REAL ID law.

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If Wednesday’s measure becomes law, the legislation would make Massachusetts the 17th state to allow such driver’s licenses. The bill is backed by the attorney general, the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, and the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police. Advocates say the support from law enforcement was paramount for a proposal that never had a vote in the House, seen as the less liberal chamber.

The coalition of police chiefs 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.

Advocates have long argued that drivers who are licensed and insured make for a safer environment for the rest of the state’s drivers, regardless of immigration status. But opponents expressed concern over people without legal status getting documentation reserved for citizens or using a driver’s license to vote.

Representative Tim Whelan, a Brewster Republican and former state police sergeant, said during the debate his stance was informed by conversations with law enforcement. He pointed out that while many sheriffs and police chiefs have come out in support of the bill, there is also a large number who haven’t.”

“This is not a slam dunk by any reasonable measure,” he said. “It’s the opposite.”

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Whelan and the rest of the Republicans voted against the bill, as did eight Democrats.

GOP candidate for governor and former state lawmaker Geoff Diehl wrote in a statement Wednesday that the legislation was “just plain wrong.” His opponent in the Republican primary Chris Doughty tweeted last week that “the result will be costly for taxpayers.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Maura Healey and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz both expressed their support for its passage Wednesday.



Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.