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. 

“I did my best to give them a good life,” she said, adding she arrived in the US from Guatemala when she was eight. Cortez grew up, found employment, and paid taxes, but couldn’t get a driver’s license. “I’m not a criminal, and we’re not here to do anything wrong,” she told CommonWealth.

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.  

Alam, a 12-year-old boy from Guatemala, testifies before the Joint Committee on Transportation on Wednesday with Alicia Cortez. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

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 LynnRep. 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. 

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, known for his hardline immigration stances that parallel those of President Trump, was the first person to testify against the bill over an hour into the hearing. 

“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 committeeasked 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.   

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

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.”