Whenever Alicia Lopez, a mother of five, took her kids to sports or to church, she and her kids prayed that police would not catch her driving without a license.
“Every time there was a police officer behind me, my kids would say, ‘I’m going to pray for you so that they don’t stop you, so that they don’t see us,’” Lopez, a New Bedford resident who immigrated to the country in 1988, said in Spanish at a legislative hearing last week.
Lopez is one of more than 200,000 immigrants in Massachusetts who cannot get a driver’s license due to their lack of legal status. While advocates have spent more than a decade pushing the state to allow residents without legal status to obtain licenses, supporters say momentum is growing in the Massachusetts Legislature for the proposal.
The bill would expand immigrants access to insurance and training while also making it easier to get to everyday health- and work-related needs, supporters say. Mayors, union representatives and some law enforcement officials have expressed support for the bill.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, a lead sponsor of what is known as the Work and Family Mobility Act, said that the early hearing the bill has received is a good sign that it can make it to the floor for a vote in the current two-year session. The bill has reached 21 co-sponsors in the 40-member Senate and 81 co-sponsors in the 160-seat House, although it would need 27 Senate votes and 107 House votes to override a potential veto from Gov. Charlie Baker.
“Our goal has always been to get a veto-proof majority because so far the governor has not indicated his support,” said Farley-Bouvier, who said priorities for the Driving Families Forward Coalition will be to continue “constructive dialogue” with House leaders and to continue building support in areas where it has not received as much.
Baker supports existing laws that allow those able to demonstrate legal status to obtain a license, a spokesperson said in Monday statement. While Baker in the past has said there is no documentation to verify that undocumented immigrants “are who they say they are,” many have other forms of identification, such as a student ID or a passport.
New House Speaker Ron Mariano has said he sees “the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing and insurance structures,” although he has not endorsed the bill.
The Joint Committee on Transportation voted last session to advance the bill out of committee, although the proposal never made it to the floor for a vote.
The House Progressive Caucus, which Farley-Bouvier co-chairs, has called the bill its top priority for the legislative session.
State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said at the Wednesday hearing that regional transportation differences make the bill particularly important for Western Massachusetts. In some larger urban areas, Domb said, available public transportation means that some people get to work and medical appointments without driving.
“This is not the case in Western Massachusetts, however, where transportation is routinely listed as a significant barrier for residents to access health care, food pantries or supermarkets, employment, job training, job fairs, higher education, human service programs and/or services for their children and families,” Domb said, noting some small towns have no public transportation at all.
Feedback from law enforcement members has led lawmakers to revise the bill to make clear which documents someone can use to obtain a driver’s license, Farley-Bouvier said. Lawmakers also clarified that immigration officials would not be allowed to obtain data regarding which documents people used when registering for a license.
Many who testified Wednesday referenced the support for the bill offered by Chelsea Police Chief Bryan Kyes, who leads the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association. Kyes said last year that the bill would help police officers safely identify the driver of a vehicle.
At least 16 states have passed similar bills. In California, a Stanford University study found that the law reduced the number of hit-and-run accidents by 7 to 10 percent in its first year of implementation.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated in March 2020 that 41,000 to 78,000 drivers would obtain licenses in the first three years of implementation if the Massachusetts bill passed.