Editorial: Let undocumented immigrants legally take the wheel

Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 3, 2019

For years, Massachusetts has lagged behind fellow progressive states on whether to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia now have state laws allowing people who do not have national documentation to obtain driver’s licenses, including neighboring states Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

The time has come for Massachusetts to join them.

The numerous reasons were summed up well in a packed committee hearing last month at the State House for an immigrant driver’s license bill called the Work and Family Mobility Act.

Lorena Moreno, one of many from western Massachusetts who traveled to the hearing with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, told reporter Dusty Christensen that the new law would open up opportunities, not only for immigrants to feel more comfortable and safer, but also for their children who are being deprived of many basic rights. “I think everyone should have the right to move around,” the Springfield resident said.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital President and CEO Joanne Marqusee said in a statement that lack of transportation compromises access to health care and that too many people in the state already struggle to receive the services they need.

It’s a point that should be well taken in this area, where last year we observed Lucio Perez, who is an undocumented immigrant living in sanctuary at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, having to be escorted by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz to Cooley Dickinson with an appendicitis. How many other undocumented immigrants are out there who may experience a life-threatening emergency and less access to transportation?

Many farmers, too, support this bill. Michael Docter, owner of the Hadley farm Winter Moon Roots, said at the hearing that many undocumented immigrants work on farms in the area. Philip Korman and Claire Morenon of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) expanded on that idea in a recent op-ed in support of the bill.

“Undocumented immigrants need to drive to their jobs, where they pay taxes but will never see Social Security,” they wrote. “Undocumented immigrants need to live their lives, raise children and feed their own families, and permitting access to driver’s licenses is a way to extend a modicum of humanity to their daily lives.”

The bill is gaining traction, with about 75 co-sponsors. Many of our local representatives already support the bill, including state Sens. Jo Comerford, Adam Hinds and Eric Lesser, as well as Reps. Natalie Blais, Mindy Domb and Lindsay Sabadosa. Sabadosa and Blais sit on the Joint Committee on Transportation, which is considering the bill.

Among those against the bill are Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. When asked about his position, he has said that, “there’s no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are and a driver’s license is a passport to a lot of things.”

Moreno, Marqusee and Docter might point out that school events, health care visits and work are a part of the “a lot of things” to which Baker refers.

Other opponents say undocumented immigrants should not be rewarded by the state with the privilege of driving. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson testified against the bill, saying that “passing these bills will make it easier for criminal illegal aliens to evade law enforcement.” He alleged crime and identity theft would rise.

We find these arguments to be weak reasoning or simply ill-informed, as there are 13 other states that have figured out how to do this.

Additionally, states that have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses are finding that the roads are safer, immigrants and police have better relationships and state motor vehicles registries are pulling in millions in licensing fees. The Mass Budget and Policy Center says Massachusetts could raise $6 million over three years through RMV fees paid by undocumented drivers, and letting them into the auto insurance pool would lower premiums for all drivers.

One thing legislators should carefully consider, however, is a way to make sure that this driver’s license program is not used or co-opted by immigration officials eager to expel people from this country. With our federal government’s increasingly hostile posture on undocumented immigrants, this is a step that sadly must not be overlooked.

We agree with legislators who call this bill a “common sense solution,” and note that immigration status has no bearing on the ability of the roughly 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts to drive. Despite the governor’s objection, it’s time to make this bill a law.