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R.I. House approves driver privilege cards for undocumented residents

After years of failed attempts, the legislation passed by a vote of 54 to 15, with support from the House Republican leader

Representative Karen Alzate, chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, addressed the media at the State House in 2021, outlining the group's legislative priorities, including driver privilege cards for undocumented residents.Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — In a key vote that fell largely along partisan lines, the Rhode Island House of Representatives on Wednesday voted 54 to 15 for legislation that will provide driver privilege cards for undocumented residents.

But House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, provided the most notable break from the expected talking points, saying he has struggled with the issue but concluded that it’s “ridiculous” to deny driving privileges to the undocumented residents he considers friends.

“You should not be able to come to this country illegally,” Filippi said, calling US immigration policy a “national shame” that “breeds contempt for the law.” He said, “Both parties are at fault. It’s gone on forever. We do not have a sealed border. It’s porous.”

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But he said the question facing the House on Wednesday was: How does Rhode Island respond?

“I don’t want an underclass of people in our society,” Filippi said. “I don’t want people living in the shadows. ... I don’t want people taking off when a cop tries to pull them over because they think they are about to be deported.”

Filippi, a Block Island family business owner and organic cattle rancher, said he is friends with some undocumented residents. “I know these people. They teach me Spanish. They teach me things about how to build and work with my animals,” he said. “These are good people – the best and brightest for most countries, frankly.”

And it’s “ridiculous” for Rhode Island say they can’t drive a car, Filippi said.

“Respectfully, to my colleagues – and I’m going to part ways with a lot of my colleagues on this – it’s driving a car. I’ve driven cars in foreign countries illegally, and I did it because I thought it was ridiculous I couldn’t drive a car,” he said. “Our response to a broken federal immigration system should not be to deny families and friends and workers the ability to drive a car.”

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Some of his Republican colleagues disagreed.

Representative Patricia L. Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, voted against the legislation, saying “We have a crisis in our southern border right now, and this will exacerbate it. It is not about human dignity. It is about immigration status. I want people to come here legally. I do not want them to sneak over the border. I don’t think we should be rewarding people who don’t ask for permission first.”

Morgan noted that the bill says “The front and back of a driver privilege card or permit shall be identical in appearance to a driver’s license or permit.” So she asked how election officials would be able to stop people from using such cards to vote.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert E. Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, told her that the driver privilege cards would not contain the bar codes, found on driver’s licenses, that election officials scan at polling sites. And he noted that the bill says, “The driving privilege card and the driving privilege permit shall not be a valid form of identification for official federal purposes or state voting purposes.”

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Karen Alzate, said the legislation was a top priority for the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, which she chairs.

Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat whose parents immigrated from Colombia, recalled that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her father for 10 months in 2006, when she was in high school. She said he went for years without being able to get a driver’s license although he needed to support his family.

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“So this really helps children like me – American-born citizens with undocumented parents who really just want to give their children a better life and work and pay their bills,” Alzate said.

Representative Joshua J. Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat, said the experience in others states demonstrates that this legislation will have tangible benefits for all Rhode Islanders, including a reduction in hit-and-run accidents, an increase in the number of insured drivers, and lower car insurance costs.

”But just as important, I want to remind us all that there are real people in each one of our districts that this will impact,” Giraldo said. “These driver privilege cards enable fathers to get better jobs to provide for their families, mothers to take their children to school or the doctor’s office, and it allows our friends and neighbors to live and drive in a way that is safe, is responsible, and with dignity.”

Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, urged passage of the bill, saying the ability to drive is “a contemporary form of a human right.”

“The ability to drive is absolutely critical in one’s daily life whether you are visiting the grocery store, attending a medical appointment, going to work, or taking a child to school,” he said. “Simply put, the right for one to drive creates opportunity, especially for those who are most vulnerable within our communities.”

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Representative Liana M. Cassar, a Barrington Democrat, said the legislation is important piece of safety legislation, and she said it will benefit people not just in cities such as Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket, but also suburbs such as Barrington and East Providence.

“It really is about human dignity first,” Cassar said. “We are a country and state of immigrants, whether by force or by choice, and every single person deserves the dignity that comes with being able to hold down a job, being able to have economic opportunity and educational opportunity, and having the driver privilege cards will take a step to do just that.”

Several legislators gave credit to Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat who has been pushing for the legislation for 13 years, and they also credited House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat. His predecessor as House Speaker, Cranston Democrat Nicholas A. Mattiello, had distributed a campaign mailer saying that he had “stopped driver’s licenses for illegal aliens” and “single-handedly blocked this legislation.”

On May 5, the state Senate voted 27 to 10 for a bill, introduced by Senator Frank A. Ciccone III, a Providence Democrat, that would provide driver privilege cards to undocumented residents. The House passed Ciccone’s bill on Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to vote on Alzate’s bill on Thursday. So the legislation should be headed to the governor’s desk soon.

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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. “We need to make sure that we provide every opportunity to fill the jobs that are out there.”


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