Lawmakers push bill making undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses

Sen. Brendan Crighton, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and Rep. Christine Barber, backed by advocates, unveiled legislation Wednesday that would allow undocumented immigrants to acquire standard Massachusetts driver’s licenses. 
Chris Lisinski/SHNS photo

Lawmakers are renewing a push to pass legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants residing in the state to acquire driver’s licenses, despite the failure of similar legislation in the past and opposition from Gov. Charlie Baker.

Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, flanked by dozens of advocates, unveiled their bill on Jan. 23 outside the House chamber. They argued that the measure would ensure every driver on the road has undergone proper training and vision testing and that it would relieve stress on undocumented families already in the state.

“This is a very straightforward issue with a common-sense solution,” Crighton said. “There is simply no rational argument for prohibiting undocumented immigrants from earning their driver’s licenses. These are our neighbors, these are our students, this is our workforce, our family, our friends, and these are the constituents we all represent.”

The newest proposal, referred to as the Work and Family Mobility Act, was filed last week in both the House and Senate. If approved, it would permit all qualified residents, regardless of immigration status, to receive a standard license under the state’s now-two-tiered system. The legislation would not affect federal Real ID-compliant licenses, which require proof of citizenship or lawful residence as well as a Social Security number.

The bill also includes privacy protection measures. It proposes that an individual’s documents could only be released by subpoena or court order and that licenses could not be the basis for prosecution.

In 2014, a bill on the topic filed by Farley-Bouvier landed in a dead-end study. A version re-filed with the House in 2015 had more than 50 co-sponsors and drew public hearings, but by the end of that legislative session, momentum had faded and no action was taken.

Farley-Bouvier believes the newest proposal can succeed because of the split system of licenses that came into effect with Real ID policies in 2016. The standard license has a lower threshold of requirements, and Farley-Bouvier said that makes it more likely to draw support for expanding those licenses to undocumented immigrants.

“This bill, at this time, it’s much easier to do,” Farley-Bouvier said.

However, supporters may need to change the Republican governor’s mind if they hope to pass legislation. During the Real ID debate, Baker filed an amendment explicitly preventing undocumented immigrants from acquiring either type of license.

Legislators who unveiled the bill Wednesday spoke pointedly about immigration enforcement, criticizing the Trump administration’s separation of families at the border and the dangers of anti-immigrant sentiment. But the legislation, they said, could and should be kept separate from federal immigration policy.

“Our federal immigration system is very, very broken,” Farley-Bouvier said during the press conference. “We here in the Commonwealth have to do everything necessary to keep Massachusetts safe and to keep it fair while Washington gets their act together.”

As the trio spoke, about two dozen activists stood behind them, holding signs that read “Driver’s licenses for all!” and “Pass the Family Mobility Act.” The crowd comprised representatives of 32BJ SEIU, MIRA Coalition, the Brazilian Workers Center and REACH Beyond Domestic Violence.

“This is an essential issue for our membership of 19,000 service workers here in the state of Massachusetts,” said Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU. “This bill would be an important step forward at any time for immigrant families here in the state of Massachusetts, but in this moment, it is even more important, because immigrants, working people and people of color are under attack.”

Twelve states, including Connecticut and Vermont, have laws in place allowing all residents to acquire some type of license or permit regardless of immigration status. Similar measures are being considered in New York and New Jersey.

“Massachusetts is known as a progressive state,” said Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center. “It’s time to show you’re truly progressive and move this bill and pass it that will allow all immigrants in this state to drive, everyone to drive.”