RMV finds workaround for immigrant commercial drivers

Fix allows those with temporary protected status to keep driving trucks

WILLIAM REYES started to panic several months ago when his fellow commercial truck drivers began to call, describing going to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to get their licenses renewed, only to be rejected.

“They told them you’re not allowed to have CDL anymore if you’re not a permanent resident,” Reyes said, referring to a commercial driver’s license.

There are thousands of people in Massachusetts like Reyes, who is in this country under a designation called temporary protected status. So a group of unions, immigration advocates, and members of the Baker administration tried to figure out what was going on. What they learned was that a shift to a new form of federally approved driver’s license had triggered a new requirement for proving license applicants have a lawful presence in the state. That requirement was blocking people with temporary protected status from renewing their commercial driver’s licenses, so the group came up with a workaround that seems to be working.

Reyes’s temporary protected status, or TPS, expires on September 9, due to the Trump administration’s pending changes to immigration policy. His commercial driver’s license expires in 2020, so he isn’t facing the renewal problem immediately. But he knows plenty of people who are.

“The brother of my boss, he went to the RMV and was denied because of legal status. He could get a regular license, but not a commercial one. He didn’t have it for several months, and has two children, a wife, and had driven for years,” Reyes said.

Reyes came to Massachusetts from El Salvador following a devastating earthquake in 2001. “I was 16 and we had very little,” he said. Since then, he has renewed his protected status every 18 months, paying over $525 each time.

The 35-year-old Boston resident spent about $7,000 five years ago taking classes to become a commercial truck driver after spending a decade working for a now-defunct delivery company. Commercial drivers haul goods like vegetables or paper, or, in Reyes’s case, large amounts of salt used by town public works departments during snowstorms.

Changing policies and practices

For immigrants with temporary protected status, the extra hurdle of proving legal residency began last year with the advent of REAL ID, a new kind of federally compliant ID. The state’s implementation of REAL ID triggered an overhaul of the way applicants are screened for residency, which in turn led to the problems for people with temporary protected status who were seeking commercial driver’s licenses.

A rejection slip for a Class A commercial driver’s license because of the absence of “lawful presence” documents.

In 2016, all first-time commercial driver’s license applicants had to provide documentation to the RMV showing their citizenship status, or if they were permanent residents. In March 2018 the RMV began requiring additional “lawful presence documentation” from everyone, including renewal applicants.

The application process change triggered the question of how the Department of Homeland Security defines “legally present.”

When a commercial driver goes to the RMV now to renew or apply, a system called the Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program spits out whether the applicant has a lawful presence here by checking a USCIS database. People with temporary protective status have lawful status, but the problem is that they’re not considered legally present by the Department of Homeland Security.  

 Immigrant drivers who were being denied CDL licenses began reaching out to Rep. Adrian Madaro of East Boston last summer. Madaro, a Democrat, is known for working on TPS-related legislation. Madaro represents a neighborhood that is 58 percent Latino and has a large Central American immigrant population. He and a coalition of legislators, Teamsters Local 25, immigration attorneys, and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition brought up the issue with the Baker administration during the fall of 2018.

The RMV responded by allowing customers who were not US citizens or lawful permanent residents, like TPS holders, to get their commercial driving licenses again, but only on a case-by-case basis. Twenty-two renewal customers were assisted that way.

The fix

Local 25 and legislators such as Rep. Denise Provost of Somerville continued to push for a more widespread change. They ultimately found the answer by coming up with a different definition of “legally present” that the federal government was OK with.

In November, the RMV modified its policy for commercial driver’s licenses while keeping it in line with federal guidelines by looking to a different agency’s definition — the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. To do that, the agency had to issue something called a “non-domicile” commercial driver’s license. A foreign domicile applicant is someone who lives in Massachusetts but, because they don’t have US citizenship or permanent residency (like a green card), they will have to go back to their country of origin in the future.

A small sticker goes on the corner of the CDL license, and the driver has the right to drive a commercial truck through September 9, or the day the Trump administration plans to revoke TPS for groups of immigrants. It’s a temporary fix, but a lifesaver for drivers who would otherwise not have a source of income for most of this year.

“The RMV has not changed its regulations; it has changed its commercial driver’s license procedures,” said Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Sarah Finlaw, a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker, said, “The administration is pleased that a solution was reached on this issue.”

Several drivers interviewed said they think the change hasn’t been widely publicized. Reyes said he’s heard of several drivers who have applied for renewal in the past 90 days, but have been denied due to “lawful presence documents.”

James Donovan, the political and training director for Local 25, described “people in tears when we said we could reinstate their CDLs.” In November, the union sent a letter to all legislators offering to assist their constituents who may not know how to navigate the issue.

Local 25 is planning a bilingual information session this Saturday for all commercial truck drivers who hold TPS to explain how to properly renew their licenses. Since last fall, the union has helped dozens of union and non-union truck and school bus drivers acquire CDLs, working with each person individually.

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.

Christian Hever is a TPS holder who has been driving for 13 years. He hauls Poland Springs water across New England. Like Reyes, he has been in Massachusetts since he was a teenager, and was alarmed when he heard about the inability of his co-workers to renew their licenses. He said he hopes more TPS holders hear about the new commercial drivers’ license changes. “We depend on our licenses,” he said.

Both he and Reyes mentioned they have heard about fellow immigrants having trouble renewing their licenses recently, but will encourage them to re-apply.