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After decades, a bill allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented people faces a new wait: in a supportive Mass. Senate

The Massachusetts State House.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Chris Donelan was a freshman state representative in 2003 when, he said, a bill that would allow residents without legal immigration status to get a Massachusetts driver’s license first came to his attention. It would be nearly two decades, however, before the Massachusetts House passed it.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” Donelan, now Franklin County’s sheriff, told the bill’s backers in a briefing Thursday.

For supporters, the wait continues. Two months after the House approved the bill by a veto-proof margin, it’s yet to surface in the Senate despite its top leader backing it and more than half the chamber formally supporting similar language.

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The current version, which requires that undocumented residents prove their identity with documents such as a foreign passport and birth certificate when applying for a license, is also backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police. It cleared the House, 120-36, in mid-February, giving it enough votes to overcome a potential veto from Governor Charlie Baker, who has repeatedly said he doesn’t support such an effort.

“Because of a potential veto, it’s important that we move this bill through the legislative process as quickly as possible,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano told advocates in late March.

When that may happen is unclear. Senate President Karen E. Spilka said at the same late-March event that she is “looking forward” to bringing the bill to the floor so “it can become law,” but her office has yet to provide a timeline.

State Senator Brendan P. Crighton, a sponsor of the Senate bill and cochairman of the transportation committee, said a vote in the Senate is only a matter of time, not a question of support. “We have very strong support in the Senate,” the Lynn Democrat said. “We continue to have conversations. We want to get every vote we can.”

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If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia as jurisdictions that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Its backers have framed its need as one of public safety: It would help ensure that more drivers have proper training and insurance and deter people from leaving the scene of an accident out of fear of being caught driving without a license.

The Driving Families Forward Coalition, which backs the legislation, on Thursday organized its fifth virtual briefing to keep attention on the bill, this one with county sheriffs and district attorneys voicing support and, at times, lamenting that it’s taken years just to get to this point.

“It moves at a glacial pace,” Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said of government. “Government just moves too slow sometimes.”

Support from law enforcement, however, is not universal. State Representative Timothy R. Whelan, a Brewster Republican and former State Police sergeant now running for Barnstable County Sheriff, argued from the House floor in February that while dozens of chiefs support the legislation, hundreds more have not signed on.

He also questioned the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ expertise in validating documents, echoing concerns about an agency that’s struggled with high-profile missteps and mistakes in recent years.

State Representative Patrick J. Kearney, one of eight Democrats in the House who opposed the bill, said his vote was reflective of who he represents: He said none of the chiefs or police unions in the two South Shore towns he represents support it, nor does Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, a Republican.

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“Our first responders, I’ve always thought that their opinions matter. My DA’s opinion matters to me, even though we disagree on a lot of issues,” Kearney said in a phone interview Thursday. “What it came down to was lawful presence. If you are not with legal documentation, the state should not be engaging in making it easier for individuals to stay here who are not lawfully in this country.”

That debate is likely to play out in some fashion in the Senate, should the bill surface there. At Thursday’s event, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan spoke at one point directly to any lawmakers following the virtual discussion, promising to publicly back their vote.

“Any senator who’s watching this that might be on the fence, thinking there’s going to be a pushback from the public . . . trust me, we’re all behind you,” the Easthampton Democrat said. “We’re going to stand behind you. We’re going to let everybody know that this is important legislation and it’s the right thing to do. And it’s the right time.”

Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.