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Clarence Fanto: Should undocumented immigrants be licensed to drive? Here are 10 reasons why it’s an obvious ‘of course’

Rep. Tricial Farley-Bouvier speaks at rally

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier was an outspoken advocate and co-sponsor of the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in Massachusetts. The bill passed the House with overwhelming support this week.

LENOX — If we find ourselves involved in a fender-bender or — perish the thought — a more severe auto accident, wouldn’t we want the other motorist to be properly licensed and to be driving an insured vehicle?

Certainly, you say. In that case, we could applaud this week’s approval by the state House of Representatives of a long-overdue bill allowing residents lacking legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses. Currently in Massachusetts, without a valid Social Security ID, one can’t apply for a license.

Co-sponsored by state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, the measure now goes to the state Senate, where prospects for approval are favorable, and then to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

Perhaps Baker can be persuaded to back the bill. Even if not, the margin in the House in favor was 120-36, indicating lawmakers could override a veto by the governor.

If the Work and Family Mobility Act becomes law, Massachusetts would join 16 other states, including New York, Connecticut and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia, that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Here are 10 compelling reasons why it’s common sense for the state’s estimated 200,000 undocumented immigrants of driving age to be licensed:

1) This is about public safety for all drivers, pedestrians, law enforcement officers and everyone else, for that matter. That’s why Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn supports it, as does Attorney General Maura Healey, the statewide Massachusetts Major Cities Association of Police Chiefs, a majority of sheriffs and district attorneys and other groups.

2) Addressing Baker’s objection that there would be no way to verify the identity of an applicant for a license, the legislation requires the drivers to present extensive paperwork.

3) Applicants would need two documents proving their identity, date of birth and state residency. One document could be a valid, unexpired foreign passport or consular identification. The other could be a valid, unexpired driver’s license from any U.S. state or territory, an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, a valid, unexpired foreign national identification card, an unexpired foreign driver’s license, or a marriage certificate or divorce decree issued in Massachusetts.

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

5) The bill states that people without legal immigration status could apply for a standard driver’s license, not a Real ID version. They would not be registered to vote automatically, a key point that widened support among lawmakers.

6) In most of the state, public transit is inadequate, and the ability to drive is crucial to prospects for employment. As Senate President Karen Spilka pointed out, “As the granddaughter of immigrants, I have been a longtime supporter of the idea behind the Work and Family Mobility Act. Individuals and families deserve to feel safe, and driver’s licenses for all qualified state residents is good for our economy and public safety.”

And, as the Lowell Sun editorialized, “With or without a license, thousands of unauthorized foreigners have no choice but to drive. Like millions of their fellow Massachusetts residents, many of them need to get to work, drop off their kids at school, or shop for groceries.”

7) As the Berkshire Immigrant Center has explained, in addition to getting to and from work, access to medical appointments and shopping without a car is highly challenging in this county. That means some undocumented immigrants drive without licenses, insurance and vehicle registrations.

8) This is not another example of a blue state/red state partisan divide. As conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote, “No rational person thinks that residents who entered the country without a visa should be barred for that reason from applying for a debit card, signing up for Netflix, or getting a COVID vaccine. Why the endless furor over authorizing them to take a road test and obtain a driver’s license? Getting a driver’s license is as irrelevant to citizenship as going to a doctor or getting $50 from an ATM. For most adults in this country, driving is a necessity. Nothing is gained, and a good deal is lost, by preventing unauthorized immigrants from doing so legally.”

9) Critics of the bill can rest assured that there’s no shortcut to legal citizenship.

“Making it possible for unauthorized immigrants to acquire a driver’s license isn’t going to add ‘legitimacy’ to their immigration status,” Jacoby stated. “It isn’t going to have any effect on their immigration status at all. What it will do is ensure that they can be identified and that they’ve passed a driving test. It will make them considerably less likely to drive without insurance or to flee from the scene of an accident. Whatever you think of people who live in America without proper immigration papers, do you want them operating motor vehicles without proper ‘driving papers’ as well?”

10) A pathway to citizenship for desperate immigrants seeking a safe harbor in the U.S. is essential, though open to debate. But, a driver’s license is a separate matter. It’s public safety that benefits all of us. Full stop.

Information from the Boston Globe and State House News Service was included in this commentary. Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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