Michelle Lopez in her office

Michelle Lopez, former executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, has left that position after three years. She says the organization needs to keep growing. “To be like a big YMCA, but for immigrants. For people to come in and share their cultures and not just be assimilating to the United States. To really open the Berkshires [to immigrants’] cultures, languages, food, art and music.”

PITTSFIELD — Getting to and from work, health care appointments or even just the grocery store without driving is a big ask in Berkshire County.

Berkshire Immigrant Center staff say that state laws, and the lack of public transportation options, force undocumented immigrants to drive unlicensed or miss out on basic needs.

“Here in the Berkshires, there’s really no other option,” said Emma Lezberg, a caseworker for the Pittsfield nonprofit. “If you have to go to work, you have to drive.”

While 16 states, including neighbors Connecticut, New York and Vermont, allow all residents to apply for a driver’s license, Massachusetts requires individuals to show proof of a Social Security number to obtain a license.

The Massachusetts House is expected to vote today on a proposal to make Massachusetts the 17th state to allow all drivers to obtain a license. Supporters of the bill, which was co-authored by state Rep. Tricia Farley- Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, believe that it will make roads safer by ensuring that all drivers are licensed, registered and insured, along with improving immigrants’ access to basic needs.

“It’s mind-boggling that it’s taken us so long to get to this point,” said Michelle Lopez, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. “This is another way for us to ensure safety for everybody ... to ensure everyone has insurance, ensure that we are all covered.”

In states that have allowed undocumented immigrants to get a license, the number of hit-and-run crashes has decreased and insurance premiums have fallen.

But, Gov. Charlie Baker has voiced opposition to allowing licenses for undocumented drivers, questioning whether the change would conflict with federal Real ID guidelines and whether undocumented immigrants can verify that they “are who they say they are.”

Asked by reporters Monday, Baker maintained that he supports current laws that require proof of legal presence, although he stopped short of threatening a veto.

A redrafted version of the Farley-Bouvier bill requires applicants to show a valid and unexpired foreign passport or consular identification document, as well as a driver’s license from another state or territory, a birth certificate, a foreign national identification card, a foreign driver’s license or a Massachusetts marriage certificate or divorce decree.

The bill would allow undocumented immigrants to receive a standard driver’s license, not a Real ID-compliant license.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said that his department shifted its approach to undocumented drivers from enforcement to education some time ago, in part because unlicensed-operation cases “just didn’t go anywhere” in court.

“It was much easier for us just to ask our community partners to educate the people they were assisting,” said Wynn, who supports the Farley-Bouvier bill.

Lezberg said that a top priority is ensuring that undocumented immigrants know their rights. In general, law enforcement might not ask people about their immigration status, and people always have the right to remain silent.

“We just tell them what to do if police stop them, understanding that we can’t tell people not to drive,” Lezberg said. “People don’t want to do something they’re not supposed to be doing, but they don’t really have a choice.”

Behind immigration status, driving is the second-greatest concern Lezberg hears from clients, she said.

“I have clients who are certainly concerned about insurance,” Lezberg said. “If you’re uninsured, there’s a lot more concern about what happens if you do get into an accident, even if it’s something little.”

In a November 2020 survey by the Berkshire Immigrant Center, 11 percent of the 114 clients who responded said that they did not have access to reliable transportation.

“That would mean that they live too far off a bus route, or the bus route doesn’t run when they need to get to and from work, or they don’t have a driver’s license or a car,” Lopez said.

Respondents to that survey ranked only affordable housing and jobs above transportation as the most pressing challenges in Berkshire County.

Even residents with legal status have had difficulty renewing driver’s licenses, Lezberg said. If a document such as a work permit or a green card expires at the same time as a driver’s license, backlogs in those systems can force people to wait to renew their licenses.

An inability to drive not only hurts employment, Lopez said, but it also can pose an issue during medical emergencies.

“I think people aren’t aware of the number of emergency situations that can pop up and put your family in danger because you can’t legally drive,” Lopez said.

“What if your kid, in the middle of the night, comes down with something, or an infant who can’t talk? And you don’t live within a certain distance of a hospital, and you’re too financially unstable or don’t have health insurance to pay the ridiculous ambulance fee. How are you getting your child to the hospital?”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.