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RI POLITICS

R.I. poised to provide driver privilege cards to undocumented residents

House Judiciary Committee votes for the legislation, setting up a vote on the House floor Wednesday

The Rhode Island State HouseEdward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — After years of advocacy and setbacks, Rhode Island is poised to pass a law that would allow undocumented residents to get driving privilege cards.

The House Judiciary Committee voted for the legislation on Tuesday, and it’s expected to pass when it comes before the House floor on Wednesday.

The state Senate passed similar legislation last year, and it voted 27 to 10 for the bill on May 5. So attention has been focused on whether the House would act.

“Issuing drivers’ privilege cards is a matter of public safety because this legislation makes it mandatory that all drivers must have insurance,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat. “The bill has more than adequate checks and balances and it has the support of the State Police.”

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Shekarchi noted that Connecticut enacted similar legislation several years ago and that Massachusetts took that step earlier this year.

The Rhode Island bill would allow the state Division of Motor Vehicles to issue a state identification card to residents unable to establish lawful presence in the United States if they can provide proof of residence in this state and a tax identification number doing business in the state.

They would be called driver privilege cards and look somewhat different than driver’s licenses, legislators said. The driver privilege cards would not be valid for voting purposes. The legislation would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

On June 9, Massachusetts legislators voted to override a veto from Republican Governor Charlie Baker, allowing a bill that provides driver’s licenses for residents without legal immigration status to finally became law after decades of activism.

By contrast, Governor Daniel J. McKee, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that he plans to sign the legislation.

“I see it in this context as an economic issue as much as a public safety issue,” McKee told reporters, noting the state unemployment rate has dropped below 3 percent for the first time in more than 30 years. “We need to make sure that we provide every opportunity to fill the jobs that are out there. I see this as an economic measure that could do just that. Every time someone gets to work safely, and they are paid, they pay taxes.”

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The House Judiciary Committee voted 9 to 2 for the bill, with no discussion. The two “no” votes came from Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, and Representative David J. Place, a Burrillville Republican.

Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who chairs the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, introduced the House bill.

“This was our number one priority,” Alzate said Tuesday. “We have been calling for this for many years. Let’s get this done.”

Alzate said the legislation will make the roads safer for everyone because undocumented residents will take driving tests and get insurance.

And she rejected the idea that undocumented residents should be denied driving privileges, saying they are paying taxes and need to get to work. “They are working hard to take care of their families,” she said. “They are paying their bills as best they can.”

Hector Perez, director of the Immigrant Coalition of Rhode Island, said advocates have been pushing for the legislation for about 15 years.

“Year after year, advocates have been saying passing this legislation will make Rhode Island a safer place,” he said. “It’s about safety, it’s about families, it’s about helping Rhode Island economically and supporting the community.”

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The immigration coalition includes groups such as the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Progreso Latino, and the Refugee Dream Center.

After Tuesday’s committee hearing, Place said he voted against the bill because is concerned about the term “undocumented.”

“We are issuing government IDs and authorizing driving privileges to residents” when “we, potentially, can’t verify their identity,” Place said. “I’ve always had concerns with registration lists. That is what these licenses will become. While current legal protection may prevent the list of those who received one of these documents from being used for immigration law enforcement, laws and legal decisions can always be changed.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.