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Drivers’ license bill appears ready to pass

Legislation mirrors laws passed in 16 other states

Anna Lamb

After decades of activism, advocates for undocumented residents have come one step closer to achieving one of their biggest strategic goals — giving immigrants living in Massachusetts communities the right to obtain legal driver’s licenses.

Put to a vote in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the “Work and Family Mobility Act” passed the legislative body 120 to 36 last week. The farthest legislation of this kind has advanced in the Bay State, the bill still faces hurdles in the Senate and the governor’s office.

“We believe that this is the time that we need to look towards how we better protect the immigrant community,” said 32BJ SEIU Vice President Roxana Rivera, whose organization has co-chaired a coalition pushing the legislation forward.

Calling themselves the Driving Families Forward Coalition, the advocacy group includes hundreds of businesses and organizations supporting a broad range of undocumented immigrants.

Rivera and leadership from other partner organizations, including the Brazilian Workers Center as the other co-chair, believe access to driver’s licenses will be effective in improving road safety, with immigrants having to pass road tests to obtain a license and additionally, not fearing deportation if involved in an accident.

Moreover, the groups have cited benefits to Massachusetts’ economy, with the immigrant workforce being supported and in turn spending money on license applications and increased auto and insurance sales.

Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a lead sponsor of the bill, reiterated to her colleagues Wednesday that the bill is primarily about public safety, and does not impact undocumented person’s immigration status.

“It really is simple and straightforward,” Farley-Bouvier said. “[This bill] will require that all drivers in Massachusetts be trained, be licensed and be insured. H4461 is a public safety bill.”

Other concerns with the legislation aired during last week’s session included logistical questions of how identities will be confirmed to issue licenses in the first place, and additionally if licenses will be able to grant immigrants privileges beyond legal operation of a motor vehicle.

Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus took these concerns head-on, explaining to the chamber that applicants will be required to provide two forms of legal identification such as a foreign passport or birth certificate.

In his response, Straus mentioned Governor Charlie Baker, one of the nay-sayers and an adversary of similar measures proposed in the past.

In response to questions about whether the language would allow immigrants to vote, Straus assured it would not.

“This bill, which is about driver’s licenses, does not authorize, permit or allow any even possible new means or eligibility for the automatic voter registration,” he said.

Several lawmakers on the fence about the bill seemed to be swayed by this specificity and narrowly defined qualifications, as they helped bring in law enforcement as a key supporter. The Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police gave their official support after being approached by coalition members and weighing in on the bill’s language.

“A couple years ago, I was against it, because I thought that, you know, the IDs weren’t strong enough,” said Lawrence Police Chief and MMCCP Vice President Roy P. Vasque. “Over the years, they’ve worked with tightening that language up to a point where we’re comfortable with it now.”

MMCCP represents 41 of the of the largest departments or municipalities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — those with populations over 50,000 people and police departments with over 100 officers.

Vasque added that many of its members deal with large immigrant populations, making this an important issue for them.

“From a law enforcement perspective … it’s important for our officers to know who they’re dealing with when they make motor vehicle stops. Now that they have to go through this process, they’re going to be trained like everyone else, and getting a license. So we’re hoping that makes the road safer.”

The bill will now face Senate approval. Supporters hope to get enough votes to override the Governor’s veto power. If passed, Massachusetts will be the 17th state with legislation of this kind.

“We have not won this bill yet. It needs to go to a vote amongst the Senate. And that’s what we’re going to be focused on — and ensuring that we have we have a supermajority,” added Roxana Rivera during a conversation with the Banner.

drivers license bill, immigration, undocumented
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