After decades of activism, false starts, and failed efforts, advocates celebrated Thursday as a bill that allows driver’s licenses for residents without legal immigration status finally became law.
Massachusetts legislators voted to override a veto from Governor Charlie Baker and made official a law backed by law enforcement groups, immigrant rights advocates, and insurance companies. It will take effect next summer.
When the override vote was approved by the Senate Thursday afternoon, activists who were gathered in the public gallery shouted, hugged, and cried.
“This gives so much relief to thousands of families here in Massachusetts,” said a teary-eyed Roxana Rivera, a union vice president and cochair of the coalition that advocated for the legislation. It proves “we can win. And we can’t give up on each other. Our lives are too important.”
The House voted 119-36 mostly along party lines Wednesday to override the veto. And, with a 32-8 vote and the slam of Senate President Karen E. Spilka’s gavel Thursday, Massachusetts became the 17th state to green light such a law.
Undocumented Massachusetts residents can start the process of applying for the licenses July 1, 2023.
“This is a well-vetted piece of legislation,” bill sponsor Senator Brendan P. Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, said ahead of the vote. “Our roads are safer when every single driver has to have a road test, vision test, and obtain insurance. . . . This is something we should all want.”
The eight votes against the measure were the Senate’s three Republicans and Democrats Nick Collins of South Boston, Anne M. Gobi of Spencer, Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton, Walter F. Timilty of Milton, and John C. Velis of Westfield.
Outside the State House, immigrant workers, families, and other activists braved the rain and wind to support the Senate’s veto override. The group camped out overnight in front of the building as part of a 24-hour vigil.
By afternoon, the sun was out and activists danced to music playing through loudspeakers as cars passing by on Beacon Street honked in support. The crowd watched a live feed of the vote on the steps outside, and the sounds of music and cheering filtered into the Senate chamber on the State House’s third floor.
When the bill became law, those gathered outside poured water on one another, danced, and chanted.
“We are all excited and we feel very, very optimistic,” activist group Cosecha Massachusetts’ Erika Arévalo said in Spanish. “For more than 20 years our community has been in this fight. We believe that today it will happen because [of] pressure not only from the coalition, but from the people who are in the streets.”
Arévalo, 40, moved to Boston from El Salvador a decade ago, and recalled past actions put on by Cosecha, such as marches and a hunger strike, that she said eventually pushed lawmakers to act.
“It is only now that the community has lost its fear,” she said.
Senator Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure is crucial for undocumented immigrants, “an integral part of our state.”
“Undocumented immigrants are our neighbors, our friends, our community, our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Come next year, people without legal immigration status will be able to obtain a driver’s license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport and birth certificate or a passport and a marriage certificate.
Before the law goes into effect, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, in consultation with the secretary of state and the office of the attorney general, will write regulations and procedures for the licensure process. The state is also required to ensure that people who do not have proof of lawful presence are not automatically registered to vote under a current state law that registers those seeking driver’s licenses who are of voting age.
Backers argued the RMV is well-equipped to handle such licenses, since some non-US citizens who cannot vote already are eligible for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts, such as teenagers under 18, green card holders, DACA recipients, and people in the United States on student visas.
The measure’s success, after years of failed advocacy framing the issue as one of social justice, came after language was tightened to draw more support from law enforcement, and thus the support of more conservative members. The bill was backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police.
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 illegally using a driver’s license to vote.
“This bill represents a construct that is very problematic,” said Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, who voted against the veto override and whose amendments to the bill were rejected during floor debate. Among Tarr’s suggestions was to create a “driver privilege cards” separate from the Massachusetts driver’s license that could not be used as government-issued identification and would be a different color.
The bill “creates an incredible threat to the credibility of the electoral process,” the Gloucester Republican said Thursday. “I truly wish that we had taken a different path.”
Baker had vetoed the measure just one day after receiving it, citing a risk to election security that Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top election official, called “a red herring.”
Though the measure got broad support from lawmakers, a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts residents found that a narrow plurality of respondents — about 47 percent — opposed the legislation. About 46 percent were in favor, and 7 percent undecided.
Democratic candidates for governor Attorney General Maura Healey and Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz both support the legislation, while Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty are both against it.
Soon after the override vote was taken, Diehl and his running mate, Leah Allen, published a statement expressing their support for a ballot question to repeal the law.
“This bill is a bad bill,” Diehl said in a statement. “Leah and I will not sit by idly and watch the consequences of this bill take away the safety and democratic rights of Massachusetts residents.”
Under state law, 10 registered voters would have to submit a petition to start a referendum on the law, which they may do the 30th day after a law is enacted. In this case, that would be July 9.
Then, they would have to collect 40,120 signatures by Sept. 7. Assuming they have enough certified signatures, the question could make it onto the November 2022 ballot.
In 2014, Diehl helped lead a successful ballot campaign repealing part of a 2013 law that created increases in the state gas tax tied to the rate of inflation.
The campaign did not immediately respond to questions as to whether they plan to actually collect signatures to get a question on the ballot.