Unable to get a driver’s license in Massachusetts, undocumented immigrants face a choice: drive unlicensed and uninsured, or lose a source of transportation.
Lawmakers and advocates want Massachusetts to join the 16 states that allow people to obtain a license without legal status.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, is one of the four lead sponsors of the Work and Family Mobility Act, which she says has built the momentum needed to pass in the new legislative session. The proposal garnered 60 co-sponsors during the previous session, as well as a public expression of support from Senate President Karen Spilka, but the bill never made it to the floor for a vote.
Supporters, including some in law enforcement, say opening licensing and training opportunities to undocumented immigrants would make roads safer, while also improving equity of access to health and economic opportunity.
An estimated 200,000 people live in Massachusetts without legal papers, and the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said in March 2020 that 41,000 to 78,000 drivers could get licensed in the first three years if the bill is passed.
“This — allowing, requiring all drivers in Massachusetts to have a license, to be trained, to be licensed and insured — is the single best way to help our immigrant neighbors in their lives every day,” Farley-Bouvier said in a virtual event held Tuesday by the Driving Families Forward coalition.
Gov. Charlie Baker consistently has expressed opposition to the bill, meaning that lawmakers might need the support of a two-thirds majority to override a veto. Baker’s concern is that it would be difficult to verify the identity of people if they are undocumented.
“There’s no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are,” he said in 2019.
But, many undocumented immigrants have some forms of identification, such as a student ID or a passport.
Farley-Bouvier, who said the bill has more supporters in office now than during the previous session, filed the legislation in the House with state Rep. Christine Barber, D-Somerville. Sens. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, and Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, introduced it in the Senate.
Some speakers at Tuesday’s event shared personal stories about the difficulty of living in Massachusetts without a license.
“Every time that I needed to drive, I could not stop thinking about my kids and how their lives would be without me,” said Katherine Lopez, who has lived in the U.S. for 19 years. “When I left home every morning, I didn’t know if I was going to see them again because I knew if police stopped me, they could call immigration, regardless of my status, and I could be deported.”
Weak access to public transit in many parts of Massachusetts, Crighton said, enhances the need for the bill, and he said Massachusetts residents shouldn’t have to bear the consequences of what he called “a broken immigration system.”
Some believe that new House Speaker Ron Mariano, like former Speaker Robert DeLeo, might wait until he knows a bill has the votes to pass before bringing it forward for a vote. Farley-Bouvier said the bill’s supporters will be “working closely” with Mariano to pass what they see as “common-sense legislation.”
“In this past year, like no other, we have seen the bright spotlights shone on the many inequalities and injustices that have long existed in our commonwealth and in our country,” Farley-Bouvier said. “We know that no one policy can address all the [inequalities] that we are facing, but we do know this: No matter what is happening on the national level … driver’s licenses are squarely in the purview of state governments.”