Most Massachusetts residents don’t seem to know what to think of the undocumented immigrant population. And yet, this demographic is categorically an economic fact of life in the Commonwealth. These workers often are part of the silent backdrops in our everyday lives as they labor in the underbelly of the local economy — the janitors, house cleaners, restaurant kitchen workers, and the field hands for suburban landscapers.
They pay taxes (oh, yes, they do). Their children increasingly fill the region’s classrooms. And if immigration reform ever gets off the ground, many will be on their way to citizenship.
They also drive — without insurance and at financial and physical risk to others. So it will be something of a political litmus test when the Legislature holds a hearing next month on a bill designed to give undocumented residents the right to drive legally by being eligible for a state-issued license.
Of course, the Commonwealth’s undocumented population, estimated at 160,000, also serves as the occasional political piñata: the social services burden, the ones who have flouted our nonsensical and broken immigration laws.
So is the notion of officially sanctioning the right of undocumented immigrants to drive on our streets and highways outrageous? Or at least highly controversial? That’s apparently what producers at Fox 25 thought when they aired a segment on the proposal late last month. Then they asked viewers their opinion. Contrary to what they seem to have expected, the unscientific poll (in which about 25,000 votes were cast) showed that 80 percent supported providing licenses to undocumented residents. But initially, in an apparently honest mistake, Fox 25 anchor Maria Stephanos reported the wrong results on air, inverting the station’s poll and stating that the 80 percent rejected the bill. Later, Fox 25 corrected the error after immigrant advocates complained. Did Fox 25 only see what it wanted to see in the poll results? (Fox 25 declined to elaborate, pointing to a news story on Stephanos’s error.)
If there’s a backlash simmering, it has yet to materialize. Conservative Boston Herald columnist and radio host Michael Graham also polled his audience, and the results were similar to Fox 25’s: More than 70 percent of the votes were in favor of the Safe Driving Bill. It’s possible that Massachusetts overall is far more willing to accept — and actually bureaucratically codify — the existence of its undocumented immigrant population.
Now it’s up to Beacon Hill to weigh the issue, in particular the Safe Driving Act, sponsored by Senator Pat Jehlen and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier. The Joint Committee on Transportation will consider removing the requirement to provide a Social Security number when applying for a license. If the bill gains support, it would reflect a changing Massachusetts political climate, one that acknowledges the growing reality and practical needs of the undocumented workforce with the added benefit of protecting other drivers on the road.
The more one drills down into the proposal, the less controversial the law appears. Many of these residents drive without proper exposure to the driving laws, and, of course, risk great physical and financial harm to others if they get in an accident. The bill requires license applicants to pass a driver’s exam and purchase insurance. The IDs would carry slightly different markings than the standard driver’s license. Advocates say a legitimate state ID would put a significant dent into the black market for false IDs, which drains police resources. Moreover, the bill makes it clear the license would not make its holder eligible for other public benefits.
Massachusetts is not exactly blazing a trail with the proposal. Eight states, including two in New England and the District of Columbia, passed laws last year to issue drivers licenses to residents who lack Social Security numbers. Colorado, for example, passed a measure that grants access to a driver’s license to residents who show proof of a state tax return the previous year. Connecticut’s new law requires applicants to show proof of identity, residency, and sign an affidavit promising to pursue legal immigration channels when they are eligible.
In its present form, the Safe Driving Act leaves some of the documentation enforcement details to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles. Yet as the bill is fine-tuned, the larger political question looms: When it comes to undocumented workers, will it be outrage or acceptance? As far as providing a common-sense answer to making the roads safer, the momentum in Massachusetts is toward acceptance.
Marcela García is a Boston-area journalist.