Massachusetts citizenship and the importance of state power

Immigrant license legislation is not just about driving

WHEN THE PANDEMIC BEGAN, and the federal government failed, we quickly learned how much it mattered that we all lived in Massachusetts. Two years of state-by-state comparisons in suffering, death, vaccination, and recovery showed us that for the first time in hundreds of years, your life depended more on your state identity than your national one. We had responsibilities to each other, and better than any other state, we fulfilled them.

Our Legislature is currently voting  on a proposed law that is described as a means for people to get driver’s licenses who did not come to our state legally. But there is a much bigger idea in that legislation, as it also permits identification cards for those who do not wish to drive. These documents can be used as proof of a very new and very old idea: Massachusetts citizenship. 

With this law, we can extend this idea to everyone here who is working at our common purpose, regardless of their federal immigration status. Those documents can be used as the basis of government policies, especially at the municipal level. That the cards would not provide the right to vote is far less important than the official act of telling so many people that they are one of us, and can work and thrive alongside us in peace. The ability to carry this status with them every day can be a profound change in their lives.

Can there really be such a thing as state citizenship? The pandemic showed it to us. We had such pride in our state, our leaders, our public health community, and what we believe in. Our strong state identity galvanized our resolve and calmed our fears about the virus. When the lockdown began, I told my children in a meeting in our living room, “We live in Massachusetts. We have great doctors and scientists. Governor Baker will protect us.”

So often, I looked out across the country through the state-by-state comparisons, and thought to myself, “I am so glad we are here.” I often said to friends and relatives on video calls things like, “But we are in Massachusetts, so…” I know a lot of friends who also said things like that. 

Do we have the right to declare such an audacious thing? Yes. In fact, this has been a time of  great state power, with many states enacting policies about who could enter, and whether they had to quarantine. It was downright colonial! The pandemic reminded us of our great state powers.

All through this, there have been an estimated 200,000 of our neighbors who are not here legally. This is an entire nation of people, and they are everywhere. The virus didn’t care about their right to be here, and it taught me not to care either. These people served, suffered, succumbed, and survived alongside us during our darkest days. They were neighbors, churchgoers, and essential workers. Many got vaccinated in the same places we did. If anyone has earned the right to be a citizen of Massachusetts, it is those who, without legal status, stepped up and got their shots to protect other people.

Yet all the talk is of driver’s licenses. A driver’s license is insignificant compared to a vaccine card; the ability to drive is so mundane, 17 other states have already removed a federal citizenship requirement from it.

I would consider anyone who can show me their vaccine card a fellow citizen of our state. And, oh, how many American citizens in Massachusetts decided they owed less to the rest of us than a vaccination. Perhaps they never really assimilated into our culture here. 

There will be some resistance to finally recognizing that nearly all of these people are our neighbors who are working alongside us, and not aliens who are a threat to us. I was one of the skeptics of state and city repairs to our federal immigration laws. During the pandemic, I let go of my previous views. Like most Republicans, I believed that our federal immigration laws must be respected, and efforts to provide driver’s licenses were a slap in the face to those laws. I have been waiting for decades for those laws to be changed to reflect America’s needs, all while they became increasingly unjust. 

The utter failure of the federal government to protect us during the pandemic convinced me that our broken Congress is not going to fix our immigration laws either. As is the case on so many other important policy issues, the states have been left to solve big problems on their own.

The final hammer blow to my previous thinking on immigration came from a carpenter. My wife and I hired a contractor to repair our house last year. We had to wait for months, as there was a labor shortage in the trades. Finally, in the heat of August, a team of men showed up. They were a typical mix of subcontractors and day laborers. Unlike the people in my community, every single one of them had been vaccinated by then. I came to believe at least one of them was not an American citizen. But he was a good carpenter, and he was on my roof for 10 hours a day when it was greater than 90 degrees outside. 

One day during the project, I noticed something on my lawn. I recognized it immediately: it was a prayer card. As our family is Catholic, we have one in our kitchen next to the dish rack, with a picture of Saint Francis on the front and a prayer on the back. The one I found was of Saint Joseph, showing him as a carpenter. 

I asked the head of the team who it belonged to. He said, “Oh — it’s his” — and pointed to the carpenter I suspected wasn’t here legally. He spoke almost no English, but took back the card. I thought, “That man is just like me.” 

I no longer care what immigration officials in Washington think about him. President Biden has ended the federal immigration enforcement incursions into our state anyway, letting us decide who belongs here. We can handle this ourselves, as Massachusetts did before, long ago.

Meet the Author

Ed Lyons

Political writer and Republican activist
In addition to his vaccination and prayer cards, I want that carpenter to have one more card in his leather bag. One that reflects that he is a true citizen of Massachusetts, and that he is no longer an alien.

Ed Lyons writes about politics and lives in Swampscott.