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OPINION

What does immigration status have to do with a driver’s license?

No rational person thinks that residents who entered the country without a visa should be barred from applying for a debit card, signing up for Netflix, or getting a COVID vaccine.

David Tello and his father, David Tello Sr. attend an event advocating for driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants outside the State House on Sept. 14, 2019.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Massachusetts is home to about 200,000 unauthorized immigrants of driving age, and lawmakers finally appear ready to let them to do something nearly all of us take for granted: apply for a driver’s license.

Late last week, the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee voted 14-3 to favorably report a bill that would make licenses available to people living in the country without legal status. If the measure is approved by the full House, it will go to the Senate for a vote, and, if the Senate does likewise, to Governor Charlie Baker. Will he sign it into law? In the past his answer was always no. On Monday, for the first time, his office was noncommittal. Maybe that’s a sign of progress.

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It isn’t only in Massachusetts that this issue is being debated. In Rhode Island, a bill authorizing driver’s licenses for people living in the United States without immigration papers passed the state Senate last year, and the House is being urged to follow suit in the current session. Similar legislation has been introduced in New Hampshire, where the House Republican leader scorns it as a “monumentally disloyal” attempt “to extend the rights of people who are in our country and state illegally.” Other states where lawmakers are wrestling with the topic include Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

It has never made sense to me that there should be such apprehension about letting unauthorized immigrants get a license to drive. No rational person thinks that residents who entered the country without a visa should be barred for that reason from applying for a debit card, signing up for Netflix, or getting a COVID vaccine. Why the endless furor over authorizing them to take a road test and obtain a driver’s license?

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“Paving the way for illegal immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses simply provides another vehicle to promote their legitimacy,” fumed the Lowell Sun in a recent editorial. But that makes no sense. A driver’s license doesn’t promote anything except public safety and better traffic enforcement. With or without a license, thousands of unauthorized foreigners have no choice but to drive. Like millions of their fellow Massachusetts residents, many of them need to get to work, drop off their kids at school, or shop for groceries.

Making it possible for unauthorized immigrants to acquire a driver’s license isn’t going to add “legitimacy” to their immigration status. It isn’t going to have any effect on their immigration status at all. What it will do is ensure that they can be identified and that they’ve passed a driving test. It will make them considerably less likely to drive without insurance or to flee from the scene of an accident. Whatever you think of people who live in America without proper immigration papers, do you want them operating motor vehicles without proper “driving papers” as well?

In a column a couple months back, I cast a cold eye on New York City’s newly passed ordinance granting 800,000 noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections. I argued against that decision on the grounds that the right to vote is an explicit function of citizenship, and that giving noncitizens the ballot undermines the importance of citizenship itself.

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But getting a driver’s license is as irrelevant to citizenship as going to a doctor or getting $50 from an ATM. For most adults in this country, driving is a necessity. Nothing is gained, and a good deal is lost, by preventing unauthorized immigrants from doing so legally.

During earlier rounds of this debate, Baker said his objection to “giving licenses to people who are undocumented is . . . that there’s no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are.” The bill before the Legislature explicitly meets that concern, by requiring them to supply proof of their identity, date of birth, and a Massachusetts address. They will have to provide both a valid passport (or consular ID) and a valid driver’s license from another state or country, an original birth certificate, or a Massachusetts marriage certificate. The bill will have no effect on US immigration policy. Its only purpose is to make sure that anyone getting behind the wheel is qualified to drive and can be identified if pulled over.

Sixteen states, ranging from deep blue Connecticut to deep red Utah, have made it legal for unauthorized foreigners to apply for driver’s licenses. Massachusetts ought to become the 17th. Let the immigration debate continue unimpeded, while seeing to it that anyone driving in Massachusetts is licensed to do so.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.

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