PITTSFIELD — The Massachusetts House appears set to vote next week on a proposal to allow residents to seek driver’s licenses without being required to demonstrate legal immigration status.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, indicated Thursday that the House plans to vote on the bill next week, adding that Mariano is working to ensure the votes necessary to override a potential veto from Gov. Charlie Baker.
That is big news, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said in a Friday interview. Farley-Bouvier, a lead sponsor of the Work and Family Mobility Act, first introduced a version of the proposal in 2013 as “an act relative to safe driving.”
“This is a significant step forward in the process,” she said. “To be really honest, there’s still a lot of work. I feel confident, but we just have to keep the goal focused on making sure that at the end of the day, all drivers in Massachusetts are going to be trained, licensed and insured.”
Massachusetts requires residents to show proof of a Social Security number to apply for a license, leaving an estimated 200,000 undocumented immigrants unable to get licensed. Undocumented immigrants then are forced to choose between driving unlicensed and losing a key source of transportation.
The left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center calculated in a March 2020 report that 41,000 to 78,000 drivers would be licensed within the first three years of implementation.
In Berkshire County, a lack of public transportation options means that undocumented immigrants must drive to get to work, health care appointments or even the grocery store.
“If someone walks into our offices, the first question is whether there is any way to legalize status, and the second question is driving,” said Emma Lezberg, a caseworker for the Berkshire Immigrant Center.
Licensing more drivers, supporters say, would improve road safety for all drivers while opening opportunities to undocumented immigrants. The bill has support from organized labor and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, in addition to some law enforcement officials.
The Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association has supported the bill, although the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has not taken a position.
Of the 160 members of the House, 84 have indicated their support as co-sponsors. Among the 40 Senate members, 22 have co-sponsored the bill. All state lawmakers from Berkshire County have signed on as co-sponsors.
To become law, the bill would need to pass the House and the Senate, where President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, has voiced support for the proposal. Baker would need to sign a finalized version that the branches send him, or at least 107 representatives and 27 senators would need to override a veto.
Baker previously has expressed concerns with verifying that undocumented immigrants “are who they say they are.”
“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,” Baker spokesperson Terry MacCormack said Thursday.
Pointing to revisions in the bill concerning documentation requirements, Farley-Bouvier said she believes that the redrafted version of the House bill “addresses all of the governor’s concerns.”
“‘Undocumented’ is a term,” Farley-Bouvier said. “It doesn’t mean that they don’t have documents. It means they don’t have federal status. I think we have addressed those concerns in this bill, and I think the governor will be pleased.”
The bill would require residents to provide at least two valid and unexpired documents to obtain a license. One must be a foreign passport or a consular identification document, and the other must be a driver’s license from another U.S. state or territory, a birth certificate, a foreign national identification card, a foreign driver’s license or a Massachusetts marriage certificate or divorce decree.
Sixteen U.S. states and Puerto Rico already allow residents to obtain a license without demonstrating legal immigration status.
“Years ago, we might’ve been the first state,” Farley-Bouvier said. “Now, we’re going to be the 17th state.”
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said he supported the proposal shortly after he became chief.
“The backlash and the responses I got from across the country were kind of concerning,” Wynn said. “There are still strong feelings on both sides out there.”
Wynn expects safety to increase as more drivers pass road tests, although the main benefit is that “from an urban police department perspective, it simplifies the roadside encounter,” he said.
“The reality is, we know undocumented immigrants are driving, and as it exists now, sometimes they’re driving with a wide variety of documents that we do not know the validity of,” Wynn said. “So, that makes it very complicated. In many cases, they are written in the language of the country of origin, which makes it difficult.
“The big safety thing from a law enforcement point of view is, it shortens the duration and lessens the tension during a stop,” he added. “And anything that simplifies the roadside encounter is good for the driver and good for the officer.”