Groups seek to add immigrant driver’s license authorization to police bill

Licenses for undocumented immigrants ‘a priority,’ says Rep. Gonzalez

AS THE HOUSE GATHERS testimony on a policing reform bill passed earlier this week by the Senate, S.2820, some immigrant and worker groups are calling for the legislation to add language to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Service Employees International Union 32BJ, Brazilian Workers Center, and Pioneer Valley Workers Center plan to rally today in front of the State House in support of the driver’s license measure.

Springfield Rep. Carlos González, chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, told CommonWealth on Friday morning that “this is one of many things we’d like to see as a priority.”

The driver’s license bill has stalled for years in the Legislature, and Gov. Charlie Baker has said he opposes it, so it’s not clear that lawmakers will be looking to add another contentious provision to a bill already generating plenty of heat on Beacon Hill.

Several groups have submitted written testimony on the matter to the House, which they shared with CommonWealth.

The AFL-CIO and SEIU 32BJ are both urging that the police reform bill include the driver’s license provision, citing the disproportionate impact of COVD-19 on immigrant groups. “Denying a license to immigrants also denies them access to health care, and forces them to use unsafe transportation,” the organizations wrote in a statement.

Members of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and immigrant group Movimiento Cosecha plan an encampment in front of the State House and hunger strike to press the issue.

“We need driver’s licenses now, during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Claudia Rosales, a Western Massachusetts farmworker told Commonwealth. “We rely on ride-sharing daily with a lot of people in one car because we don’t have access to driver’s licenses. We don’t want to expose ourselves or risk our families.”

The driver’s license measure was filed this session as a stand-alone bill, cosponsored by Democratic Reps. Christine Barber of Somerville and Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Democrat from Lynn. In February, the bill made it out of the Transportation Committee.

Immigrant leaders for Movimiento Cosecha were detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement this winter in incidents the organization has said would have been prevented if undocumented immigrants had access to driver’s licenses.

Estimates from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center put the number of undocumented immigrants that reside in Massachusetts at 185,000, though the number could be far higher. Advocates say that 41,000 to 78,000 drivers could obtain licenses within the first three years of a change in state law to permit that. About 16,000 undocumented immigrants are estimated to be currently driving without licenses, including to health care and grocery store jobs deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate passed a far-reaching police reform bill on Tuesday that would ban chokeholds, limit the use of tear gas, license all law enforcement officers, and train them in the history of racism.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

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.

Part of the crafting of the legislation came from the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus’ 10-point plan to address racial justice and law enforcement violence on a state, local, and federal level, unveiled back in early June.

Law enforcement groups have spoken out against the bill, voicing particular concern about a provision that would limit their immunity from civil lawsuits. They also complained that the bill was not subject to a public hearing.

Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday he hoped to have a virtual hearing on the Senate bill this week, but House leaders then moved instead to accept written testimony by email with a deadline of this morning. There are just two weeks left in the legislative session for the House to consider the police bill. Both branches would then need to agree on a common bill and send it to Baker’s desk.