Let undocumented immigrants obtain driver’s licenses

Would improve road safety and accountability

SIXTEEN OTHER STATES and the District of Columbia now provide undocumented residents with the ability to legally obtain driver’s licenses. Allowing immigrants to apply for proper identification and purchase insurance coverage is a benefit to families, communities, and businesses. Police chiefs in Massachusetts understand that this is about public safety. Absent long-awaited federal action on immigration policy, the chiefs have been pressing lawmakers to follow the lead of states that have adopted common sense approaches.

The debate over driver’s licenses has roiled the Massachusetts Legislature for years. It’s not going to go away until lawmakers take action for the state’s 250,000 undocumented immigrants and hundreds of thousands of other Massachusetts residents who care deeply about their plight. Those in favor of this measure understand that granting drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants could also improve road safety and accountability because they would be allowed, not only to drive, but also have car insurance.

Providing undocumented immigrants with the ability to drive legally will eliminate a major source of anxiety in their daily lives. During the pandemic, undocumented residents working at hospitals, supermarkets, and other essential jobs have put their health on the line to serve us. Asking them to continue to do so while denying them the ability to drive legally introduces needless stress in this new normal.

Like the rest of us, immigrant residents must get to their jobs, purchase groceries, bring their children to school, and seek medical services. Situations arise when they find themselves with no good option but to drive. Consider the undocumented immigrant who works as a nanny for a family that moves to a new home far from a public transit line, or who is an essential front-line worker in the food supply chain, or whose gifted child receives a rare scholarship to a prestigious private school. What would you do if you were in their shoes?

Many of us would undoubtedly choose to drive unlicensed despite the risks. After all, it isn’t really a crime…. Well, actually, driving without a license is a criminal offense in Massachusetts. Those who commit the infraction are charged with misdemeanors and brought before a district court judge.

New data from the trial court show just how frequently this occurs. During the most recent fiscal year, more than 4,600 Latino residents were arrested for this alleged crime. (For all of these defendants, unlicensed driving was the most serious charge in the case). For Latinos who appeared in court, driving without a license was by far the most common charge; more than 20 percent of Latino defendants were in court for driving without a license versus 8 percent for Asian, Black, and White defendants in Massachusetts. While the data do not provide detail on immigration status, the inability to legally obtain a license is clearly a big factor.

Using the court system to process the cases of thousands of undocumented immigrants arrested solely for driving without a license doesn’t come cheap. With painful budget cuts looming, surely we can find a better way to spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Not to mention that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses would bring in millions of dollars in permit, title, and driver’s license fees, registration fees, gas tax, excise tax, and taxes on motor vehicle sales and auto parts, to mention a few.

Meet the Author

Juana Matias

Chief operating officer, MassINC
Meet the Author
As long as federal immigration policy remains a disaster, the state will be left to manage the consequences. Most Massachusetts residents compassionately understand the many traumas that our fellow citizens who are immigrants have endured in recent years. We plead with our state legislators to do the same.

Juana Matias is chief operating officer of MassINC. Eneida Roman is co-founder of Amplify Latinx and a small business owner of Roman Law Offices in Boston.