Undocumented immigrants can get Mass. drivers’ licenses in July 2023
Legislature overrides Baker’s veto to pass bill into law
THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE completed its override of Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto on Thursday, allowing immigrants without legal status to obtain a driver’s license in Massachusetts. The state is the 17th, in addition to Washington, DC, to adopt that policy.
The House overrode Baker’s veto with a 119-36 vote on Wednesday. The Senate followed suit Thursday with a 32-8 vote, both bodies surpassing the two-thirds threshold needed to override a gubernatorial veto.
The policy will go into effect July 1, 2023.
Advocates hailed the measure as a humanitarian boon to immigrants that will also improve public safety. Sen. Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat and a lead sponsor of the bill, said the bill will alleviate some of the fears immigrants have associated with law enforcement interactions. “For many, it might be hard to imagine that simply being pulled over or being involved in a minor fender bender can drastically alter your life and put your residency in jeopardy,” Gomez said. “For undocumented immigrants, it’s something they live with daily.”
The debate over giving licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally has fallen largely along party lines, with the Democratic-led Legislature supporting the policy and the Republican governor and lawmakers opposing it.
In the House, every Republican representative opposed the veto override, along with eight Democrats and one independent. In the Senate, five Democrats joined the three Republicans in voting against the override.
Republican candidate for governor Geoff Diehl and lieutenant governor candidate Leah Allen said they would support a ballot question to overturn the new law. Although the regular deadlines have passed for getting questions on the 2022 ballot, it is still possible that Diehl could submit a referendum petition to repeal the law, which would require gathering over 40,000 signatures in the next 90 days.
“Leah and I will not sit by idly and watch the consequences of this bill take away the safety and democratic rights of Massachusetts residents. We fully support submitting this question to the people to give them a direct say in their future,” Diehl said in a statement.
Advocates for the bill portray it as a way to help immigrants provide for their basic needs, while enhancing safety on the roads, since there will be fewer people driving without a license and insurance. “Our roads are safer when every single driver has to pass a road test, a vision test, and obtain insurance,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton, Senate chair of the Transportation Committee.
But opponents worry about encouraging illegal immigration, about security issues, and the potential for illegal voting. In his veto message, Baker said the Registry of Motor Vehicles does not have the capacity to verify foreign documents. “I cannot sign this legislation because it requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles to issue state credentials to people without the ability to verify their identity,” Baker wrote.
While the bill requires two forms of identity, these can include foreign documents. Republican auditor candidate Anthony Amore, who previously worked as an immigration inspector, has repeatedly raised the concern that RMV employees will not know whether a foreign document is legitimate.
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican, called it “grossly unfair” for a state to provide identical licenses to people who are lawfully present and those who are not. He echoed Baker’s concerns that the RMV is not adequately equipped to determine the validity of documentation. “The bill lacks basic safeguards and provides no real guarantees that it will actually enhance public safety as its proponents have claimed,” Jones said.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, also cited concerns that the licenses could be used for identification and voting and said the bill poses “threats to the integrity of our license system, our electoral system…and our public safety.”
Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Worcester Republican, called passing the bill “the wrong priority” given the suffering going on throughout the state, including from the pandemic, high gas prices, and a baby formula shortage.
Bills have been introduced regularly since 2003 to let immigrants without legal status obtain licenses. Many factors contributed to the bill’s final passage in 2022. Former House Speaker Robert DeLeo was replaced by Speaker Ron Mariano, who voiced early support for the policy. The coalition pushing for the bill expanded from only immigrant rights groups to a forceful coalition co-led by immigrant groups and unions. Massachusetts adopted a two-tier licensing system, separating state licenses from federally approved REAL ID licenses. Advocates worked with law enforcement to tighten requirements related to what documents immigrants need to prove their identity, and obtained some support from state law enforcement. The national discussion on immigration also shifted after President Donald Trump tried to crack down on illegal immigration, leading some Democrats who opposed Trump to come out more strongly in support of immigrants.Brazilian Worker Center Executive Director Lenita Reason and 32BJ SEIU Vice President Roxana Rivera, who led the coalition pushing to pass the bill, said in a statement that the new law “will make our roads safer for everyone, our communities more trusting and secure, our health practices more rational, and our economy more vibrant. Equally important, it will lift a terrible stigma and fear that upwards of a quarter million men, women and children in Massachusetts suffer whenever they have to travel.”
Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said in a statement, “For nearly 20 years, MIRA has partnered with lawmakers and advocates to fight for the right of immigrants to attain a driver’s license regardless of immigration status. Now, nearly 20 years later, we have all succeeded, and helped make our Commonwealth a safer, more equitable place for immigrants and refugees to call home.”