Alberto is a 38-year-old undocumented resident of Waltham. Originally from Brazil, he moved to the United States 17 years ago looking for better economic opportunities. He now owns a home, pays state and federal taxes, and works two jobs seven days a week.
Because of his status, Alberto — who asked to be identified only by his first name — cannot apply for a Massachusetts driver’s license. Yet he needs a vehicle to travel between his jobs in Watertown and Medford. His public transit options are too time-consuming. He tried biking, but it also took too long and was exhausting. He settled on a moped to make the daily trip, which takes 40 minutes to an hour each way.
The basic goal of the state’s system for licensing drivers is road safety. On Monday, Governor Charlie Baker revealed one way that system had broken down: The Registry of Motor Vehicles failed to act on reports from other states that should have led to the suspension of Massachusetts licenses, including that of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, the driver involved in a crash in New Hampshire that killed seven. That’s an unacceptable lapse.
The inability of unauthorized residents to apply for licenses is also a safety gap — and fixing this one requires a change in the law. Under a bill filed this year, folks like Alberto would be able to apply for a license. In a state heavily dependent on immigrant labor, the measure is long overdue.
Currently 13 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., allow undocumented drivers to obtain a driver’s license. Some of those states passed legislation with bipartisan support: Republican governors in Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico signed measures in their states. New York became the 13th jurisdiction to adopt this common-sense policy. Oregon is expected to be the 14th soon. A dozen more states — including Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Texas — are debating similar legislation.
The push is a reaction to President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric — but also reflects the safety concerns in play.
“We want everybody to be trained on the rules of the road, and we want people to be insured and tested,” said state representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who cosponsored the legislation with state representative Christine Barber of Somerville. According to federal law, each state must issue a Real ID-compliant license, which requires a Social Security number and proof of citizenship or lawful residence. Farley-Bouvier’s bill would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to permanently offer two cards, the Real ID license and the standard license. The former could be used at airports and to enter federal, military, or nuclear facilities. The latter would be available for those without legal immigration status and others who might have difficulties obtaining a birth certificate or proof of lawful residence, such as seniors or transgender people.
Opponents fear the measure would give legitimacy to unauthorized immigrants and open the door to public benefit fraud. But the bill makes it clear that a license can’t “be used as evidence of the holder’s citizenship, nationality, or immigration status.”
A driver’s license shouldn’t be viewed as a right, a privilege, or even a benefit, but as a document issued for public safety. (License fees are also a source of state revenue.) The license exists to demonstrate one thing: that the holder is fit to drive on the state’s public roads.
“All of us just want an opportunity to take the test,” said Alberto, the Brazilian immigrant. “When people say, ‘Oh, they’re going to commit crimes,’ I say to them, ‘Look at me! I am working two jobs and I pay my taxes.’ It would be much safer if all of us are licensed.”
Indeed, a Stanford study analyzed the short-term safety impact in California a year after the state enacted legislation licensing undocumented drivers. It found that the rate of hit-and-run accidents decreased between 7 and 10 percent. Connecticut also saw a decline in hit-and-runs and in the number of people driving unlicensed after enacting a similar policy.
There are 275,000 Massachusetts residents without legal immigration status . Making sure they have access to driver’s licenses would improve safety for all residents.