Massachusetts Senate leaders said Thursday that they intend next week to pass legislation that would allow residents without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses, marking a major step toward the long-debated proposal reaching Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
The Senate vote, planned for May 5, would come more than two months after a similar proposal passed the Massachusetts House by a veto-proof majority. Senate Democrats said Thursday they’re confident they, too, have enough backing to overcome any opposition from Baker, a second-term Republican who has repeatedly said he doesn’t support such legislation.
“I’m pretty sure and very confident that the Senate will pass this. And if it does come back to us, we will make sure that we have the same [support to] override,” said Senator Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.
“Undocumented immigrants are our neighbors, our vecinos, our amigos, our friends, and our fellow community members,” Gomez said. “This legislation would give them the same opportunities and comfort that many of us take for granted.”
The bill that cleared the House, 120-36, in mid-February requires that residents who don’t have legal immigration status prove their identity with documents such as a foreign passport and birth certificate when applying for a license. The legislation also explicitly states that those considered undocumented immigrants will not be registered to vote as a result of getting a driver’s license — language that supporters say helped bring legislators on board.
Senate leaders said Thursday that the version they’re voting on is “very close” to the House’s, aside from what they described as technical differences.
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.
The measure’s 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. It has the support of the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police.
“We have an obligation to work with our residents, and certainly we don’t want them in fear,” Lawrence Police Chief Roy P. Vasque said at a State House news conference. “We’re trying to build trust, not destroy trust. The bill goes a long way towards doing that.”
Support from law enforcement, however, is not universal, and opponents have argued that those who don’t have “lawful presence” in the country should not also be afforded the chance to get a license. Others have framed it as a slippery slope.
“I think there will be more to come down the road, to incentivize that, ‘Hey, don’t worry about being undocumented, don’t worry about being here illegally. You can still come to Massachusetts and not only can you get an ID, you can get a driver’s license,’” Representative Paul K. Frost, an Auburn Republican, said from the House floor in February. “I think that sends a message around the country.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.