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Baker’s alien approach to driver’s licenses

After a four-day march from Framingham, immigrants and supporters rallied in front of the State House in April for drivers' licenses for immigrants.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

When it comes to undocumented immigrants, Governor Charlie Baker seems to take the term quite literally.

“My problem with giving licenses to people who are undocumented is just that,” Baker told reporters last week when asked about common-sense legislation that would expand access to driver’s licenses for all state residents regardless of their immigration status. “There’s no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are.”

We have news for you, governor. That someone is undocumented — that is, in the United States illegally — doesn’t mean that the person has no other valid documentation or form of identification, like a foreign passport or identity card. Being an “undocumented” or unauthorized alien isn’t the same as being an alien from another planet.


Indeed, 14 other states have recognized that not having lawful status should not be a barrier for someone to get trained, tested, and insured in order to obtain a driver’s license, which improves public safety for all drivers on the road. Baker’s concerns ignore the experience of those states — including Connecticut and Vermont — that have implemented processes to verify and accept foreign documents, with no major issues.

“You have the governor saying we don’t know who these people are,” said Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, who testified last week in support of the bill and who tracks such legislation across the country. “Well, the point of this bill is that they [immigrants] want to tell you who they are. They want Massachusetts to know who they are.”

The bill filed this session would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to offer a Real ID-compliant driver’s license, available to US citizens and lawful permanent residents with a valid Social Security number, according to federal requirements; and a standard license available to those without legal immigration status and to other populations who might have trouble getting a birth certificate, such as homeless or transgender people. The latter card, according to the bill, can’t “be used as evidence of the holder’s citizenship, nationality, or immigration status.”


According to Vimo, half of all immigrants in the country, regardless of status, currently live in a state that issues a driver’s license to everyone. The states that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a license do it via a separate card. For instance, Vermont has three tiers of licenses, offering two types of Real ID-compliant cards and a third that confers only driving privileges.

California started issuing a special card in 2015 to those “unable to submit satisfactory proof of legal presence in the United States.” The Golden State has already issued more than a million such licenses to unauthorized immigrants, and that hasn’t opened the door to significant problems. Crucially, the California special license is labeled to clarify that it can only be used to drive. On the front it reads: “Federal limits apply,” while the back states: “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.”

The processes to verify IDs for immigrants without lawful status vary from state to state, but in general there are lists of primary and secondary documents that applicants can present. Examples of these include: foreign passports (some states accept expired ones), valid consular identification cards issued by country of citizenship (such as Mexico’s Matrícula Consular, which has enhanced security features), and even Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers and federal tax returns, because, of course, even the federal government validates the presence of immigrants here illegally when it comes to taking their money.


There’s no point in pretending that undocumented immigrants aren’t already on the roads in Massachusetts — often driving to work, to do jobs that benefit the whole Commonwealth. Making sure those drivers are trained, tested, and licensed makes perfect sense. If more than a dozen other states can figure this out, so can Massachusetts.