In a debate over whether the state should uphold a new law that allows people without legal immigration status to obtain driver’s licenses, a current and former elected official on either side of the issue debated safety, immigration, and administration of the law.
The Question 4 debate, hosted by WBUR in partnership with WCVB Channel 5 and The Boston Globe, was moderated by Tiziana Dearing and pitted supporter state Senator Brendan P. Crighton against opponent Dean Tran, a former state senator.
Question 4, which election officials recently certified to make the Nov. 8 ballot, gives voters the power to decide whether to keep the law legislators passed this summer.
A “yes” vote will keep the law on the books and make Massachusetts the 17th state to have such a policy in effect. A “no” vote will repeal the law.
The idea, a subject of fierce debate for years, would affect many of the estimated quarter-million 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 without legal status and will encourage others to do the same.
The law, which passed earlier this year over the objections of Governor Charlie Baker, was supported by immigrants’ rights groups, insurance companies, the attorney general, the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, and the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, which represent cities with more than 40,000 residents.
Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who serves as co-chair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, argued that the new law makes for a safer environment for the rest of the state’s drivers, regardless of immigration status, since drivers who may currently be driving illegally would have to pass a driving test and purchase insurance.
He cited data that shows hit-and-run accidents have decreased in some states that have passed similar laws.
“I drive my kids to school every day, ages seven and three,” he said. “I want to make sure that every other car on that road has gone through the proper channels, has done it the right way, and has shown documentation that is proving who they are.”
Tran, argued that the new law does not address public safety, but “is about skirting the law.” The Fitchburg Republican alleged the new law will allow people without legal status to vote and have “access to the benefits that American citizens have.”
Under the new law, the state is required to ensure that people who lack proof of legal residence are not automatically registered to vote under the state law that registers those seeking driver’s licenses who are of voting age.
Tran also argued that some local police unions are against the bill, but declined to name one when Dearing, the moderator, asked him to.
“It currently costs the state of Massachusetts $2.5 billion to provide benefits to illegal immigrants and this is going to make it worse,” he said.
Crighton said Tran’s comments that the law will allow immigrants more public benefits or access to voting are “hateful” and “really disrespectful.”
“It’s not true. This has nothing to do with benefits,” he said. “It has nothing to do with voting, and it has nothing to do with citizenship. It has to do with safer roads.”
The new law was enacted in June after Massachusetts legislators voted to override a veto from Baker, who said the proposal could threaten election security among other concerns.
The law, which will go into effect next summer if voters choose to uphold the law, 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.
The polling picture has been muddled.
Before the law passed, a May poll found that a narrow plurality of respondents — about 47 percent — opposed the idea.
After the law passed, a July poll found that most Massachusetts voters — 58 percent of them — supported preserving the new law.
Tran is challenging Representative Lori Trahan in the Third Congressional District. He also is facing criminal charges, filed by Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, accusing him of stealing a gun from an elderly constituent in 2019 and misleading investigators about what happened. He pleaded not guilty to all charges in July.