Proposal includes driver's licenses
"By doing this, we're leading the pack like we are in health care reform," said Brooke Mead, program coordinator at the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield. "I think we are going to look back some day and say that immigrant rights are the next Civil Rights movement."
The proposal in question - issued by an advisory council from the state's Office of Refugees and Immigrants and the nonprofit group Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition - touches upon a surprisingly tense issue among the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement.
An arrestable offense With Berkshire County's public transit system paling in comparison to areas such as Boston or Amherst, many local immigrants - currently 10 percent of the county's population and climbing - are required to drive to work.
Yet driving without a valid driver's license is an arrestable offense, and can lead to contact - and sometimes deportation - from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
This in particular has tripped up undocumented immigrants of all stripes, Mead said - including those with licenses from foreign countries, as well as those currently in legal limbo, waiting for their citizenship paperwork to be completed.
"My first few years here, I never saw anyone arrested [under those circumstances]," Mead said, adding that it's up to each officer's discretion whether to arrest, cite, or warn an offender. "But I've seen a lot more arrests in the last three years."
These issues aren't just problematic for the immigrant community.
"From an enforcement point of view, it's frustrating sometimes," said Chief Michael Wynn of the Pittsfield Police Department. " Because when we encounter an unlicensed and undocumented driver, they usually think they have documents that allow them to drive."
Victims of fraud
Wynn said that while he had not read the proposal in question - and was unsure that the government could overturn the Social Security requirement needed to apply for a driver's license - he said that mandatory driver's licenses would help law enforcement identify anyone in any situation.
"A lot of times, they're victims of fraud, they've been sold bad documents," Wynn said. "They did whatever they thought they could do, but they're still unlicensed. And in that set of circumstances, our hands are tied - it's an arrestable offense."
Chief Richard Wilcox of the Stockbridge Police Department agreed. "I'm of the opinion is that if it's done right, I don't see why not," he said. "I don't have a problem if it's someone just trying to get by, trying to make a living."
Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless declined to comment.
Some, however, disagreed with the idea.
"My thoughts are very simple - I think it's wrong for the governor, or any agency, to recognize anyone who is here illegally," said Peter Giftos, executive director of the Berkshire County Republican Association. "It has nothing to do with legal immigrants - those I am totally in favor of. But this - I don't care what anybody says - it's unconstitutional," Giftos explained. "Illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from taxpayers who are legally here. We cannot do that on a state level because the more illegal immigrants we have, the more debts we will incur, and the more cost will go to taxpayers."
With Gov. Deval Patrick ordering his immigration reform advisory committee to come up with a proposal to incorporate these suggestions by late February, Mead said she was hopeful the governor would make this suggestion law.
"It's a public safety issue," she said. "I think that for a long time as a nation ... they thought the driver's license was a reward - but rather than shooting ourselves in the foot, if we issue these things, we'll know who's here."
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