BOSTON — Senate President Karen Spilka said she looked forward to debating legislation in her branch that would provide some undocumented immigrants a pathway to obtain a driver's license in Massachusetts, though the Ashland Democrat did not offer a timeline for when the bill could come up in the Senate during pre-recorded remarks aired Tuesday at a virtual advocacy event.
The bill (H 4470) cleared the House in mid-February on a 120-36 vote with supporters arguing the proposal will increase public safety by ensuring that more drivers are licensed and trained to operate a motor vehicle. The bill now awaits action in the Senate where Spilka has previously expressed support for the idea.
"Following conversations with my Senate colleagues, I am looking forward to bringing the Work and Family Mobility Act to the Senate floor so that it can become law," Spilka said during the pre-recorded remarks. "Individuals and families deserve to feel safe and driver's licenses for all qualified state residents is good for our economy and good for public safety."
When asked if there was a timetable for debating the bill, a spokesperson for Spilka's office said there was "no exact timeline to share at this time." The Senate has not assigned the bill to a committee — the next step in the legislative process — since the House passed it on Feb. 16.
A number of state lawmakers, advocates and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu spoke in favor of the bill at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition's virtual Immigrants Day, a webinar where coalition members highlighted legislative accomplishments so far this session.
Wu said the bill's passage in the House is a "huge victory to celebrate."
"This affirms that all of our community members should have the right to move freely, to get to work, pursue an education, see a doctor, without fear of being stopped for not having a license or an ID and that improves and increases, boosts all of our safety across every part of the community," she said.
The bill, as passed by the House, would allow people without proof of lawful residency in the United States — including those who are ineligible for a Social Security number — to apply for a license if they have at least two documents proving their identity, birth date, and Massachusetts residency.
The bill has been floating around Beacon Hill for years with advocates staging protests at the State House numerous times, including a hunger strike designed to draw attention to the legislation.
The House passed the bill with a veto-proof margin, over objections of critics who say it may allow people to unlawfully register to vote under the automatic voter-registration law. Unless someone opts out, a person is automatically registered to vote when applying for or renewing a driver's license or learner's permit.
Count Gov. Charlie Baker among those with reservations. During an interview on GBH's "Boston Public Radio" earlier this month, he said the "license we're talking about is not a privilege-to-drive card, which is what they have in a bunch of other states."
"It looks exactly like a Massachusetts driver's license. You can't tell the difference between this and a regular one," Baker said.
Before passing the bill, House lawmakers updated the bill's language to include a provision that prevents someone from automatically being registered to vote if they cannot provide proof of lawful residence when applying for a driver's license or learner's permit.
Opponents of the bill have also argued the legislation may ask too much of the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
During House debate, Rep. Timothy Whelan, R-Brewster, a former State Police sergeant, said he had "serious concerns" with the agency's ability to validate a person's documents.
"Are we asking [the RMV] to become experts in foreign documentation and forgery detection?" he said. "Are we establishing bifurcated sets of requirements for citizens and foreign nationals with legal presence versus those here without legal presence?"
Whelan said a bipartisan group of district attorneys and sheriffs declined to endorse the bill. Of the DAs, 64 percent endorsed the bill and 36 percent did not. Of the 14 sheriffs in Massachusetts, eight endorsed the idea while six either said no or did not give an opinion, he said. The Brewster Republican said only 12 percent of police chiefs in the state have backed the bill. The Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association support the bill while the larger Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association elected not to, Whelan said.
Rep. Paul Frost, R-Auburn, argued the bill, if passed, would encourage illegal immigration to the U.S., and to Massachusetts, if people without lawful proof of residence know they can obtain a driver's license.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Tuesday the bill is "commonsense public policy that would make our roads safer" while bringing all drivers under the same licensing standards regardless of immigration status.
"When this becomes law, residents without status will be able to safely get to work, to take their children to school. And to go to the doctor when they're sick," Mariano said. "With this vote, the House recognizes their value and dignity throughout decades of advocacy."
Chrystel Murrieta Ruiz, a political coordinator at 32BJ SEIU Local 615, said the bill bolsters public safety by making sure more drivers are aware of the rules of the road, have taken a driver's exam, are registered, and insured. Ruiz said 78 percent of Massachusetts residents 16 and older rely on their vehicles to get to work. Even in a public transit heavy area like Suffolk County, 48 percent of people rely on vehicles, she said.
"For those people that need to drive, whether it's to get to work, to buy groceries, to pick up medicine for their children, or to be seen by a doctor, we must pass the Work and Family Mobility Act this legislative session," she said Tuesday.