New pandemic take on undocumented immigrant licenses

Backers push need to drive, avoid subways and buses

SUPPORTERS OF LEGISLATION authorizing the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants this year decided to reframe the message, which comes amid a national pandemic. They say the licenses are necessary during COVID-19 because immigrants need the ability to drive to medical care, and safer passage to their jobs as essential workers.

Many of Massachusetts’ undocumented immigrants work frontline jobs on farms, at grocery stores, and in health care. They need to avoid crowded subways and buses to prevent the virus from spreading further into their often crowded and multigenerational homes. Ridesharing apps are often out of the question because of the cost.

”Driving is essential to mobility in Massachusetts, especially for families residing outside of greater Boston where  public transit options are far too limited to enable much of the essential immigrant workforce to get to work, buy groceries, access reliable healthcare—without putting themselves their families or others at greater risk,” said Jeneczka Roman of the Massachusetts Public Health Association during a Tuesday press conference.

With that in mind, Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Christine Barber of Somerville, and Sens. Brendan Crighton of Lynn and Adam Gomez of Springfield refiled the Work and Family Mobility Act last week, renaming it “An Act Relative to Work and Family Mobility During and Subsequent to the COVID-19 Emergency.”

The bill, which has been kicking around the Legislature for 18 years, had  at least 64 co-sponsors as of Tuesday morning. Gov. Charlie Baker has opposed the legislation in the past.

In a joint statement, lawmakers and advocates said the change emphasizes the way that the bill “strengthens public health, allowing tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents to avoid carpools and public transportation while also improving their access to testing and vaccination, even as more threatening strains of the coronavirus advance across the country.”

Roman said that despite growing numbers of vaccine sites, geographical constraints require residents to have the ability to drive a car in order to get vaccinated. This is of increasing importance to farmworkers in Western Massachusetts, who are in the latter part of Phase Two of the vaccine rollout.

Immigrants who can’t show proof of lawful presence in the US could apply for a license under the law if they provide other documents proving their residency, date of birth, and identity (like an active foreign passport or a recent lease). The Registry for Motor Vehicles would not be allowed to ask people for their immigration status under the law.

The law would allow an estimated 41,000 to 78,000 drivers to legally acquire licenses within the first three years after its passage, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. There are over 275,000 undocumented immigrants living in Massachusetts, according to the Pew Research Center.

“It’s imperative families can access care, particularly people who are most at risk of getting COVID. Parents should be able to take their children to the doctor safely without worrying they will be pulled over for driving without a license,” said Barber during a press call.

“Driving is essential to mobility in the state, especially during a pandemic,” said Gomez. “It’s important for workers to get to their workplaces and customers to be able to access businesses so more drivers can have a positive effect on our state’s economy.

He also highlighted potential state financial incentives, including a study saying that the Commonwealth would receive $4.5 million in fees from new applicants, and have fewer uninsured motorists.

Tiago Prado — a former undocumented immigrant who is now a citizen and insurance agency owner— spoke of his support on the call. “It will make insurance more affordable for all citizens in Massachusetts,” he said, noting that insurance fraud and risk could go down as a result of the law passing.

Advocates from the Driving Families Forward Coalition hope Massachusetts will join Vermont, Maryland, New York, and another 14 states to legalize licenses for undocumented immigrants.