Immigrant driver’s license bill moves forward

State GOP calls Democrats 'out of control'

A CONTROVERSIAL BILL that would create a way for undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts to get driver’s licenses made it out of committee on Wednesday, the first step on a long path to becoming law.

The House Transportation Committee approved the Work and Family Mobility Act on the deadline day for joint legislative committees to vote on bills. A second immigration-related bill, the Safe Communities Act, which limits communication between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement, got an extension for consideration until May.

The Work and Family Mobility Act, dubbed the “Driver’s License Bill,” would give an estimated 165,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts a form of government-issued identification, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. It removes language from current law that says people who are not authorized to be in the country cannot get licenses.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville, and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield. It has never made it out of committee before, and still faces long odds – both the House and Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker would have to approve it. Baker has threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk.

Farley-Bouvier said 14 other states, including Vermont, Connecticut, and New York, have passed similar laws. “And in California,” she said at a hearing in September, “they have reported a decrease of 10 percent in their hit-and-runs, or 4,000 incidents.”

At that hearing, many immigrants testified before the committee that their family members had been pulled over, discovered without a license, and turned over to US Customs and Immigration Enforcement for deportation. Most did not have previous criminal records, but were in the country illegally, which is a civil offense.

Lawmakers who support the legislation argue that the measure would improve safety by requiring undocumented immigrants seeking licenses to take vision and on-the-road safety tests.

Two days ago, activists with immigrant justice group Cosecha began staging a hunger strike in front of the State House to urge Transportation Committee co-chairman William Straus to advance the bill.

“We’re happy to see it moved out of committee,” said Crighton on Wednesday night. “We’ve been building momentum for quite some time. We recognize there’s still a lot of work to be done to make membership of both bodies comfortable with facts and merits of bill.”

Not everyone is on board with the bill. It has faced staunch opposition form county sheriffs, including Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who is known for his hard line immigration stances that parallel those of President Trump.

“Passing these bills will make it easier for criminal illegal aliens to evade law enforcement,” Hodgson at the September hearing, alleging crime and identity theft would rise. With local law enforcement, it’s been a mixed bag. At the end of January, the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association endorsed the bill.

“This bill would promote trust between law enforcement and all the communities we serve and protect,” said Brian Kyes, chief of the Chelsea Police department and president of the chiefs association. “In order for our state’s police officers to best do their jobs and remain safe while doing so, they need to be able to identify who’s behind the wheel. All Massachusetts families need peace of mind knowing that the drivers on our highways and city streets have passed the same driving test and know the rules of our roads.”

The Massachusetts Republican Party has actively lobbied against the bill. “A driver’s license is a privilege, not a right,” said party chair Jim Lyons. “The Radical Democrats on Beacon Hill are out of control.”

Despite concerns over the long path forward, advocates are celebrating. “We are thrilled that the Work & Family Mobility Act has been reported out favorably,” said Eva Millona, head of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

“This is a credit to the hard work of immigrant advocates, including many who are undocumented or in mixed-status families,” she added. “We hope that with strong support from law enforcement, this bill will pass this session, and Mass. will join 15 states and DC in making licenses available to all qualified drivers.”