Massachusetts bill to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants gaining support

The push to expand access to driver’s licenses to qualified immigrants without legal status continues to gain momentum as public health professionals, business leaders, advocates and lawmakers this session hope to make Massachusetts the 17th state with such a law in the books after years of debate.

Backed by majorities in the Massachusetts House and Senate, the Work & Family Mobility Act was reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Transportation last session but did not come to a final vote, with uncertain support from leadership and Gov. Charlie Baker previously expressing opposition.

The bill now has more co-sponsors than previous versions, as well as strong support from law enforcement agencies and hundreds of health care workers, according to a coalition of labor, business and public health leaders who held a virtual news conference Tuesday.

The group said the proposal would improve public health, equity and road safety — ensuring tens of thousands more drivers are road-tested and commuting to work, school and doctors’ visits safely, legally and without fear of arrest over their status. Several health care providers and advocates said the move would also help address longstanding logistical challenges and inequities faced by the state’s essential workers and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID strikes, the national food supply chain is rattled, and we momentarily wake up in our state and declare farm workers are sometimes essential when we need the fruits of their labor,” Philip Korman, executive director of the nonprofit Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said Tuesday. “We cant keep telling them they’re essential … and at the same time deny them the right to drive.”

Korman added that farm workers without licenses are at higher risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, as they often must share vehicles or ask for rides over 20- to 30-minute commutes in rural areas where bus routes are slow and infrequent. Farm owners, he said, have long relied on “the worst of Band-Aid solutions” — off-the-record agreements with local police chiefs to help prevent their workers from being pulled over.

Larry Fish, chairman of the Board of Directors for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and former CEO of Citizens Bank, noted that the immigrant and undocumented community “is being pushed away” from places near economic opportunities “as a result of the extremely high cost of housing.”

Essential workers have served “in critical and heroic front-line conditions during this terrible pandemic,” but have been left out to dry when it comes to their commutes, argued Fish, who also spoke as chairman of the Fish Family Foundation, which works with dozens of immigrant-facing nonprofits across the U.S.

“Leaving the moral and philanthropic cases aside, I want to speak as a businessman,” Fish added. “We have an urgent need for labor in this state. Just look at the hiring signs and the ads. We urgently need to have [undocumented immigrants] drive legally, safely, insured and registered.”

If it becomes law, Massachusetts would join Washington, D.C., and 16 states, including neighboring New York and Connecticut, with similar laws, which have been considered in Massachusetts for nearly two decades — a period that’s seen significant updates in standards for identification required for licenses. Several police chiefs, sheriffs and Attorney General Maura Healey support the proposal.

The bill calls for striking language in state law that blocks residents who do “not have lawful presence in the United States” from obtaining a “license of any type” in Massachusetts.

It also bars officials at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles from asking about, or creating a record of, an applicant’s citizenship or immigration status, and enables those without proof of lawful presence, including residents ineligible for social security numbers, to be eligible for a license “if they meet all other qualifications for licensure and provide satisfactory proof to the registrar of identity, date of birth and Massachusetts residency.”

MassBudget estimated in a March 2020 report that the law could help between 41,000 and 78,000 people get a state license in the first three years after passage.

The measure is due for a new report from the Joint Committee on Transportation by March 4.

Baker still opposes the proposal.

“Governor Baker supports existing laws in Massachusetts, enacted on a bipartisan basis, that ensure Massachusetts’ compliance with federal REAL ID requirements and enable those who demonstrate lawful presence in the United States to obtain a license,” Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for the governor, told MassLive on Tuesday.

 The governor’s office noted in the summer of 2016 that state lawmakers ultimately adopted legislation that included Baker’s bipartisan amendment “to make explicit that both a REAL ID-compliant license and a Massachusetts license will only be issued to individuals with proof of lawful presence, ensuring undocumented immigrants do not obtain either type of license under the new system.”

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, president of the Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said last year that the bill would “promote trust between law enforcement and all the communities we serve and protect,” according to GBH.

“In order for our state’s police officers to best do their jobs and remain safe while doing so, they need to be able to identify who’s behind the wheel,” he added. “All Massachusetts families need peace of mind knowing that the drivers on our highways and city streets have passed the same driving test and know the rules of our roads.”

Jeneczka Roman, advocacy and coalition manager at the Massachusetts Public Health Association, described the bill as a “key tool for a healthier and more just commonwealth.”

While advocates continually push for accessible, affordable public transit across the board, “we know this just isn’t true everywhere or for everyone,” creating gaps that require many undocumented immigrants to get on the roads for work or to help their families, she said.

“Driving is not a luxury,” Roman said. “It’s a critical tool of mobility in Massachusetts. And by barring residents without status from accessing driver’s licenses, the commonwealth is creating barriers to full inclusion, economic stability and better health.”

Roman, and Dr. Beth Eagleson of Baystate Health in Springfield, said current fears of getting pulled over, arrested or discriminated against leads to public health and educational hurdles, as some workers avoid or delay doctor’s appointments, COVID-19 testing, getting vaccinated or attending parent-teacher conferences.

Eagleson, who noted that “licensed drivers are safer drivers,” called decisions to limit time on the road “heartbreaking,” as they impact not only personal health but public health.

“Like driver safety, it impacts all of us,” she said. She also argued that blocking the undocumented from obtaining licenses represents a “forced lack of engagement that further cements inequality in our society.”

Roberta Fitzpatrick, Arbella Insurance’s managing attorney, noted that in the first four years after Connecticut passed its driver’s license bill in 2015, more than 50,000 undocumented immigrants have taken driving tests. The state has also seen a reduction in hit-and-run crashes and a “steep decline in people found guilty of unlicensed driving,” she said.

Providing licenses to “qualified applicants, regardless of immigration status” would ensure “more drivers are tested, that they know the rules of the road and comply with mandatory insurance laws,” while also serving as a step toward racial equity, Fitzpatrick added.

“The sad thing is, we want members of our community who are essential workers to be there when we need them, but we’re perpetuating an obstacle to their ability to drive to work legally by not passing this law,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s really just not right.”