BOSTON >> Immigrants and asylum seekers shared stories of challenges they've faced in caring for relatives and meeting professional obligations without a driver's license, pressing lawmakers Tuesday to support a bill that would allow Massachusetts residents to obtain licenses regardless of their immigration status.
"Not having a license has really affected me," Sonia Terbullino, a Lawrence resident and store owner who came to America from Peru 12 years ago, said through an interpreter during a hearing of the Joint Committee on Transportation. "In the last 12 years, I have spent over $120,000 in taxis. In May 2009, I lost a van that had $12,000 in merchandise in it because I didn't have a license and I couldn't get it registered."
The committee is weighing a bill filed by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, of Pittsfield, and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, of Somerville, both Democrats, that would allow driver's licenses to be issued to state residents ineligible for Social Security numbers or who do not provide proof of immigration status.
Applicants for Massachusetts driver's licenses currently must present a Social Security number or an acceptable denial notice from the Social Security Administration, along with records including proof of acceptable visa status and a current foreign passport.
Speaking at the hearing, Farley-Bouvier described the bill as a matter of safety, particularly in parts of the state like hers without public transit.
"The current policy of linking eligibility of driving with immigrant status means that we have tens of thousands of drivers currently out on our roads who are not trained, who are not licensed, and who are not insured," she said.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said that if legislators want to ensure safety, they should "deal with the root cause of the problem" by supporting immigration reform and efforts to secure the country's borders.
"Laws are created for the purpose of maintaining order and civility in a democracy and this can only be accomplished through strict enforcement of those laws," Hodgson said. "If we start creating laws that protect lawbreakers we will undermine the trust of our citizens and legal residents and destroy the principles that preserve our democracy."
Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, estimated that there are 60,000 undocumented immigrants between the ages of 25 and 34 in the state who may be driving.
Supporters of the bill said that there are several categories of immigrants who do not qualify for Massachusetts driver's licenses besides those who are in the country illegally, including some refugees and asylum seekers and holders of certain visas.
Stanislav Stanskikh, who described himself as a Russian constitutional scholar and anti-corruption activist who has applied for asylum after leaving his hometown near Moscow, said he has not been able to obtain a license here while his immigration status is pending.
"I need a driver's license for the same reasons that everyone does — to drive my child to medical appointments and to day care," Stanskikh said. "I also need a driver's license as an identity document to prove my age, to travel or to open a bank account. Right now, my Russian passport is my only form of identification. If I were to lose my passport I would have no identification at all."
Other immigrant parents told of facing fears of deportation, while driving without a driver's license or legal immigration status, in order to bring sick children to the doctor. Boston Children's Hospital pediatrician Dr. Julia Koehler, who chairs the immigrant health committee at the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that is a "very common situation" among her patients.
"It seems to me that the choice that we're being asked to decide is whether it would be in our interest to make our roads safer, on the one hand, or on the other hand to make lives of people who are here undocumented more difficult," said Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat who sits on the committee. "Those seem to be the competing issues here, and it seems to me at least personally listening to this that the choice is different, much more stark and perhaps much more clear when you put it that way."
Fifty other lawmakers have signed onto Farley-Bouvier's bill.
Similar legislation has been proposed repeatedly in the past. Last session, the Transportation Committee ordered further study on the bill.