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OPINION

Dear Governor Baker: You’re wrong on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

The governor has fallen prey to fearmongering arguments about driver’s licenses and voter fraud.

Natanael Monroy participates in a November 2019 protest march from East Boston to Winthrop to build support for legislation that would allow all state residents to apply for driver's licenses.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Is Republican governor Charlie Baker ever going to bring common sense to the debate around driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants?

On Thursday, he touched on the pending legislation during his regular “Ask the Governor” appearance on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.” The bill, passed by the Massachusetts House in February but still awaiting a vote in the Senate, would allow roughly 160,000 immigrants of driving age but without legal status in the Commonwealth to apply for the card if they can prove their identity with documents like a foreign birth certificate or a passport.

During the radio show, a caller from Pembroke who cannot get his driver’s license renewed because his green card has expired brought up the bill. The man said he is married to a US citizen who has cancer. “I’ve been housebound since January. My wife has cancer and she has to go get the milk. It’s not right, brother,” the caller told the governor. After Baker promised to follow up with the caller’s case, co-host Jim Braude asked Baker about his stance, and the governor struck a different tone.

“You’re automatically registered to vote in Massachusetts when you get your driver’s license. We’re not creating any kind of differential between these folks,” Baker said, referring to the automatic voter registration law that went into effect in 2020. The governor then lamented that an amendment to the driver’s license bill that House minority leader Brad Jones filed was rejected.

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The amendment, said Baker, was to ensure “that town clerks would have access to the registry to be able to determine if someone who shows up to vote . . . with a driver’s license and says, ‘I’m eligible to vote,’ that [clerks] would have access to the registry people to try to figure out if these people are eligible.”

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There’s a lot to unpack and refute there. First, the Jones amendment was a highly prejudicial and redundant overreach that could create a slippery slope leading to large-scale voter suppression. “What are we going to do next? Ask 18-year-olds for their birth certificate to prove their age?” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause.

To register to vote, one does not need a driver’s license. In the unusual event that a voter has to present identification to vote, a driver’s license is not required; they can show a utility bill. But if a noncitizen who’s not eligible to vote wants to commit fraud by registering, they can do that now. “There are already severe criminal penalties under both federal and state law for someone who registers to vote who’s ineligible,” Foster told me. And guess what? Voter fraud is practically nonexistent.

What if a noncitizen is added to the voter rolls by accident if the bill becomes law? A section in the legislation provides an additional safeguard: It directs the secretary of state to create rules to ensure that drivers without lawful presence are not automatically registered to vote either at the registry or online.

In anticipation of the bill’s passage, Secretary of State William Galvin said he’s already in communication with the Registry of Motor Vehicles to do just that. “We have the technology to safely do this and solve the automatic voter registration part very easily,” Galvin said. For instance, “We could add a different prefix to this license,” he said.

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Baker should look at the experience of the 16 other states and the District of Columbia that license drivers regardless of their immigration status. All of them except for Utah also have automatic voter registration laws. And those states are not experiencing the problems that Baker anticipates, according to the Driving Families Forward Coalition.

The agitation about licensing undocumented drivers “is a big Republican talking point,” Galvin said. “It’s Trump-like.”

Fearmongering Republicans make it a sport to assume the worst possible behaviors of undocumented residents. The truth is that the vast majority of people without valid immigration status are like the radio caller from Pembroke — maybe they overstayed their visa (not a criminal violation), maybe their green card has expired, maybe they have a pending immigration case. But they have jobs and pay taxes, and they have kids to drive to school. It’s in everyone’s best interest to license them to drive.

The bill is expected to pass the Senate. Senate President Karen Spilka has said she wants the bill to become law but there is no timeline as to when it could come up for a floor vote.

Meanwhile, concerns like Baker’s must be taken head-on to set the record straight. To license individuals based on their proven ability to drive and regardless of their immigration status keeps us all safe. What is there to fear?

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Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.