In November, Massachusetts voters will decide an emotional and divisive ballot question with far-reaching implications: Should the state uphold a new law that allows people without legal immigration status to obtain driver’s licenses?
Central to the debate is a fundamental question, according to Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University. What rights do unauthorized immigrants living in Massachusetts deserve?
“There’s a delicacy around it,” said Horowitz, whose center on Thursday issued a report predicting the impact of the law, should it take effect. The issue is “values-focused,” rather than “technical,” he said, and tends to polarize voters.
Currently in Massachusetts, people without legal status can attend public schools, qualify for free school meals, partake in some housing assistance programs, and receive public health services such as vaccinations.
But they are not allowed to vote, claim unemployment benefits, or participate in most federal programs such as Medicaid or food stamps.
Question 4, which election officials recently certified to make the Nov. 8 ballot after accepting more than 71,000 signatures from opponents of the law, gives voters the power to decide where driver’s licenses fit in the larger picture of immigration policy.
The new law was enacted in June after Massachusetts legislators voted to override a veto from Governor Charlie Baker, who said the proposal could threaten election security among other concerns. The law, which goes into effect next summer, allows people without legal immigration status to obtain a driver’s license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport, birth certificate, or marriage certificate.
Massachusetts joined 16 other states and the District of Columbia in passing such legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The idea, a subject of fierce debate for years, has been backed by law enforcement groups, immigrant rights advocates, and insurance companies, would affect roughly 250,000 undocumented people living in Massachusetts — and, its supporters contend, the millions of drivers they share the roads with. But critics say it rewards people who are breaking the law by living in the country and will only encourage others to do the same.
In the Tufts report, Horowitz predicted a mix of outcomes from allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Many people who currently drive illegally would become law-abiding drivers and obtain car insurance; information provided by the immigrants could be used to identify and track people; and the state would receive more revenue from license and registration fees.
The analysis, which does not take a stance on Question 4, also found that while the licenses won’t change people’s immigration status, it would offer a “new legitimacy” in the form of a state-issued ID.
“This is going to dilute Massachusetts driver’s licenses ... we don’t know who these people are,” said Jay McMahon, a Republican running for attorney general and a spokesman for the campaign. “The law is shielding people who are not even citizens.”
Fair and Secure Massachusetts, a Republican-affiliated group working to repeal the new law, announced it had received enough signatures to get Question 4 on the ballot by late August, days before the Sept. 7 deadline.
The group, bolstered by auto parts executive and GOP activist Rick Green, said their campaign is not anti-immigrant.
McMahon said opponents fundamentally reject the idea that the state can make policy changes involving immigration status.
“This is just plain illegal and against the constitution,” he said. “Most of the people that want to vote no on [Question 4] aren’t necessarily voting no to people. They are saying ‘No, this is not a state issue. This is a federal issue.’”
The campaign to uphold the law, called “Yes on 4 for Safer Roads,” outraised and outspent the opposition, with the bulk of its donations coming from the 32BJ Service Employees International Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts.
“[Republicans] are trying to tap into a nativist sentiment that is superficially there but is not important to people,” said Harris Gruman, a top SEIU official whose union of service workers spent several years involved in crafting the legislation. “Immigrants are needed in the economy. There is no argument against that. And there is no argument against making the road safer.”
The Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police supports the law, saying officers feel safer knowing the identity of drivers they encounter. Advocates have also cited a 2017 Harvard University study that found a similar California law seemed to reduce hit-and-run crashes.
While a “yes” vote would simply affirm a law that already passed, a “no” vote could undercut legislative support for other proposals meant to assist people living in the state without legal status, such as allowing them to receive earned income tax credits or unemployment insurance.
Public opinion on the issue is not clear, something Gruman said could be due to confusion around what a “yes” or “no” vote would mean. Because the question qualified for the ballot too late, an explanation was not printed in an informational pamphlet mailed to voters.
In July, a poll found that most Massachusetts voters — 58 percent of them — supported preserving the new law. In May, however, a similar poll found that a narrow plurality of respondents — about 47 percent — opposed it.
That uncertainty, and the strongly held opinions on both sides, could spur higher turnout, Horowitz said.
“This is the kind of ballot question that voters are going to need multiple sources of information,” he said. “Anything you are going to say is value-laden.”