Advocates push driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants
Despite looming Baker veto, lawmakers say public would benefit
FOR YEARS, ALICIA CORTEZ and her husband drove their children around New Bedford without driver’s licenses. Both of them were undocumented immigrants who could not obtain a license under state law.
Cortez’s husband was pulled over by police four years ago and, without a license, was deported to Mexico. Alicia Cortez said his deportation and his inability to see their children caused him to start drinking and eventually led to their divorce.
“I don’t want others to go through what I went through,” said a tearful Cortez as she testified Wednesday before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee in support of a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain Massachusetts drivers licenses.
Cortez, a mother of five who now has her green card, said she routinely drove without a license to take her children to school dances, to do family volunteer work in the community, and to play sports. She said she regularly carpooled with other moms and dads.
The bill she is supporting – the Work and Family Mobility Act – is controversial because it gives the estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts a form of government-issued identification. It removes language from current law that says people who are not authorized to be in the country cannot get licenses.
Gov. Charlie Baker has said that he will veto any driver’s license bill related to undocumented immigrants, but Democrats in the Legislature, led by Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville, and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, are trying once again to win the legislation’s passage.
Legislators who spoke Wednesday before the Transportation Committee argued that the measure would improve safety by requiring undocumented immigrants seeking licenses to take vision and on-the-road safety tests.
Farley-Bouvier said 14 other states, including Vermont, Connecticut, and New York, have passed similar laws. “And in California,” she said, “they have reported a decrease of 10 percent in their hit-and-runs, or 4,000 incidents.”
Crighton called the bill a “common sense solution,” saying that immigration status has no bearing on someone’s ability to drive.
Marie-Frances Rivera, the president of the left-leaning Mass Budget and Policy Center, said a 2016 calculation by her organization estimated undocumented immigrants paid $184.6 million in taxes to Massachusetts. She said expanding access to licenses would reduce insurance premiums for all motorists by about $20 per year. That calculation is based on the assumption that drivers without licenses are driving without insurance; it’s estimated that if those drivers receive licenses they will pay out $62 million in insurance premiums.
“Passing these bills will make it easier for criminal illegal aliens to evade law enforcement,” Hodgson said, alleging crime and identity theft would rise.
He attempted to connect Massachusetts’ fentanyl problem with the presence of undocumented immigrants in the state, earning hisses from the audience. Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the Senate chair of the committee, asked for “respect of the committee,” and had to ask audience members to remain quiet multiple times.
In a particularly contentious exchange, Republican Rep. David DeCoste of Plymouth asked Massachusetts AFL-CIO vice president Brian Doherty, who testified in support of the bill, if he has “illegal immigrants in your union working on job sites in this state.“
Doherty didn’t give DeCoste a yes or no, but defended the intentions the union has for fair labor standards.Other union leaders, including Roxana Rivera of the janitorial union 32BJ SEIU and Natalicia Tracy of the Brazilian Worker Center, took issue with DeCoste’s repeated use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”
“Every time I hear the word illegal my blood pressure rises,” Rivera said, with Tracy chiming in: “They’re not criminals.”