In 2011, something terrible happened to Maureen Maloney. Her son, Matthew J. Denice, 23, was killed when a truck driven by Nicolas Dutan Guaman, of Ecuador, who entered this country illegally, struck his motorcycle and dragged Denice nearly a quarter-mile.
Maloney’s grief turned her into what she calls “an illegal immigration activist” — and she’s now leading a charge at the behest of Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl to overturn a new law that gives Massachusetts residents without legal status access to a driver’s license. “I think it’s a magnet and draws more illegal aliens to come to our country, to come to our state,” she told me. Maloney, a Donald Trump supporter who appeared with him at a 2016 rally at which he addressed immigration policy, said she also backs Diehl because of his longtime opposition to the driver’s license legislation.
You could say that Diehl — like Trump — is tapping into fear, crime, and a mother’s heartbreak for political gain. But fear, crime, and heartbreak can sell. When it comes to the driver’s license issue, the general electorate is not exactly in the same place as the Massachusetts Legislature. According to a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, 47 percent opposed the law and 46 percent said they support it. Governor Charlie Baker vetoed the bill, citing worries that it will enable people who are ineligible to vote to do so. Lawmakers overrode his veto, by a vote of 119-36 in the House and 32-8 in the Senate. Both Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Attorney General Maura Healey and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz — support the new law. Chris Doughty, another Republican running for governor, opposes it.
This week, Maloney, of Milford, filed paperwork to create the “Fair and Secure Massachusetts Committee.” To get the question on the November ballot, the committee must collect a little more than 40,000 signatures by Aug. 24 — a very high hurdle. Yet whatever happens, the campaign inserts a divisive issue into the governor’s race. If it makes the ballot, it also has the potential to upend a new law that doesn’t go into effect until July 2023. It passed after years of failed attempts because advocates successfully argued that denying licenses on the basis of immigration status increases the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers and makes the roads less safe.
Maloney doesn’t buy the public safety argument. Like Baker, she raises questions about the state’s ability to process the foreign documentation an immigrant has to show to prove their identify.
But Maloney’s opposition really isn’t about data, anyway. It’s about what happened to her son after Guaman, who was driving drunk and without a license, with his 6-year-old son in his truck, drove through a stop sign in Milford. He collided with Denice, who was dragged to his death as witnesses watched in horror. In 2014, Guaman was found guilty of vehicular homicide and manslaughter, among other charges, and was sentenced to 12 to 14 years in prison. “I live with a deep, searing pain in my heart that never goes away,” said Maloney at the time of the sentencing.
It would be the height of arrogance to tell someone their reaction to such pain is wrong. Yet survivors do process pain differently. For example, Robert Curley, the Cambridge father of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1997, first led a fight to bring back the death penalty in Massachusetts. He then changed his mind about it. When I asked Maloney about that, she stuck with her argument: “I don’t think we should be rewarding people for breaking our laws. There is a legal way to immigrate into our state. There is a long wait for that, I realize. But this is a slap in the face to people who do immigrate this way.” Massachusetts, she said, “has a very relaxed climate that draws more people.” She remains a Trump supporter, because “lives were being saved” due to his enforcement of immigration laws.
Added Maloney: “I think it’s really important that the citizens of Massachusetts make the final decision. That’s why I want to put it on the ballot in November.” Her phone and e-mail “are blowing up” with supportive messages, she said, and she believes “it’s doable” to get the necessary number of signatures.
If that’s true, Massachusetts Democrats better be ready to fight for what they say they believe in. There’s a lot of passion and emotion behind this issue.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.