A bill has been circulating for at least two decades in Massachusetts, intended to give undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a state driver’s license. Now, it’s more powerful than ever, backed by the likes of Attorney General Maura Healey and the 55 chiefs of Massachusetts law enforcement agencies.
“This bill is about more than just operating a car,” Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Kotojian said at a briefing attended by several law enforcement leaders about the initiative. “It’s really about the lifeblood of the services we need to support our families and communities.”
The bill, also endorsed by more than 270 local organizations and eight mayors, would lift restrictions on unregistered drivers who pass state driving tests and the ability to obtain a license in Massachusetts. For the first time since its introduction, the bill was reported positively from the last session of the Joint Commission on Transfer.
Similar bills have been passed in 16 states including Connecticut, New York and Vermont, as well as Washington, D.C. Appreciation From the Massachusetts Center for Budget and Policy found that as many as 78,000 immigrants in Massachusetts would obtain licenses within the first three years of implementation, if passed.
Pablo Ruiz, deputy director of the SEIU, noted that the bill not only helps immigrants, but also improves road safety. “We can impact road safety for everyone when everyone learns the same rules, passes the same test, gets their license, is able to register their car, and of course, insure their car,” he said. “We’ve seen a decrease in hit and run operations.”
Since previous iterations of the bill, lawmakers have tightened standards around ID cards. Now, passports will be considered the “gold standard” for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, but other forms including consulate ID cards, which are used by Chelsea Police Chief Brian Case, who also serves as Massachusetts major city chief of police, can also be used, she noted. Having strict security features. Non-citizen applicants will still be unable to register to vote when applying for a license.
Jodi Casper, Northampton Police Chief, cited one of the drivers’ licenses as a practical reason.
“We’ve all had those situations where we parked these cars, we were standing on the side of the road in the middle of the night, someone was in a car, sometimes they had a language barrier, when you ask for a license, you are handed miscellaneous papers. Ultimately, this causes confusion to the officer. And the driver, and also quite a bit of pressure on the driver.”
Keys noted that this bill would also help build trust between the police and the communities they serve, particularly in majority-minority cities like Chelsea.
“The enforcement of the law, certainly during 2020 and 2021, is unfortunately painted very negative,” he said. “We have to keep working on building the trust we created every day, every shift, every hour, every interaction.”