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Fear and loathing of immigrants drives license ballot question

We can’t have a meaningful debate if there isn’t consensus on what the facts are.

The scene outside the State House after the bill allowing people in Massachusetts without legal immigration status to get a driver's license was passed in June.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It took the Massachusetts Legislature nearly two decades to finally pass a law making residents without legal immigration status eligible for a driver’s license. And it took only two months for extremely motivated Republican opponents of the new law to gather tens of thousands of signatures for a referendum to let voters decide whether to repeal it.

At this point, it seems likely that the Fair and Secure Massachusetts committee, formed to organize the referendum effort, will clear the 40,000-signature threshold needed for the question to appear on the November ballot. In an interview, Secretary of State William Galvin said that the committee has submitted more than 50,000 signatures, which have been confirmed as voters through local town clerks and the central voter registry. “But we haven’t physically seen” all the petitions yet in order to validate them, Galvin said. The committee has until Wednesday to submit all signatures to Galvin’s office, and he estimates it will take a week, at most, to verify them.


All the same, the GOP-driven effort to repeal the law offers an important lesson: Never underestimate the powerful emotional appeal of a political campaign rooted in misconceptions and flat-out lies about immigrants.

That was one of the reasons why state Senator Jamie Eldridge talked to voters at various signature gathering locations to urge them not to sign the petition. His presence prompted Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons to file a lawsuit against Eldridge, arguing he has been harassing and intimidating volunteers collecting signatures. Eldridge said a judge has twice denied an emergency restraining order petition from Lyons to stay 20 feet away from signature gatherers.

“In general, for supporters of the question, someone who’s undocumented broke the law by coming into the country without status or overstaying their visa and therefore that’s an original sin and no forgiveness should apply,” said Eldridge in an interview. “ ‘They should go back in line,’ some would say.”


Here are the facts. For the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants, there is no “line” to get into. In other words, there are barely any paths for legalization for current undocumented immigrants and prospective immigrants who end up coming through unauthorized means because they don’t have access to the “regular channels” to enter the country in the first place.

Second, it’s a gross overgeneralization to equate criminality with being undocumented in this country, which is a civil violation and not a criminal matter. Plus, a 2020 study found that undocumented immigrants are far less likely to commit violent crimes than US-born citizens and legal immigrants.

Nor is it accurate to assume that immigrants without legal status are relying on public benefits. After talking to potential signers, Eldridge said, “I found it shocking that so many people assume undocumented people don’t pay taxes. Not only do they, but they also own homes and open businesses,” thus contributing greatly to the state economy.

When other states passed similar laws, research found an overall positive impact on the state economy and public safety. For instance, a 2020 study showed that “both the number of drivers on the road increases as does the number of insured drivers.”

But the biggest piece of misinformation of the proponents’ campaign is about voting. “The immediate pitch that we all know about is that as soon as someone gets a driver’s license, they’re automatically registered to vote by the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and that’s absolutely not true,” said Eldridge. Not to mention, there are serious penalties if a non-US citizen tries to vote.


The voter fraud argument was invoked by Governor Charlie Baker when expressing his intention to veto the bill, which became moot because it was passed into law with a veto-proof majority. There are thousands of non-US citizens who are already eligible to get a standard driver’s license in the state — about 340,000 legal permanent residents, or green card holders, according to federal estimates. “I am not aware of any incident involving any legal resident trying to vote,” said Eldridge.

It’s dismaying to see the national GOP strategy play at the local level by engaging in false and misleading claims to sow fears among voters. Last week, an NPR/Ipsos poll found that large numbers of Americans hold several misconceptions about immigrants, including “greatly exaggerating their role in smuggling illegal drugs into the US and how likely they are to use public benefits.” All of that is evidence that a fear-based strategy works on low-information voters.

The good news is that nearly 60 percent of registered voters support keeping the new law, according to a July Globe poll. Still, in the weeks leading up to Nov. 8, there will be a lot to say about whether undocumented immigrants should be licensed or not, including misinformation. But we can’t have a meaningful debate if there isn’t consensus on what the facts are. And that should be the focus on the campaign to defend the law.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.