The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a new act Feb. 16 allowing all qualified residents to apply for a standard driver’s license or identification card regardless of immigration status.
The Work and Family Mobility Act passed by a vote of 120 to 36.
The bill will come into effect July 1, 2023, if passed by the Senate and signed by Governor Charlie Baker, making Massachusetts the 17th state in the nation to permit undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
Under current legislation, undocumented immigrants are not allowed to have a license in Massachusetts. If the new bill passes, people who apply for a standard driver’s license will need to provide proof of identity, date of birth and state residency, according to the bill.
In a 2020 report, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center predicted the bill would help 41,000 to 78,000 people get a driver’s license within the first three years after its passage.
Lena Shapiro, communication director for State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, said the senator is a “strong supporter” of the bill.
“She’s pushed for it for a long time,” Shapiro said. “This has been a real priority of the immigration movement and the coalition behind this bill, and all of the supporters have really been fighting for this for a long time.”
Cristina Brinkerhoff, a doctoral candidate at Boston University School of Social Work, said the support of the community was important to getting the bill passed.
“We have endorsements from law enforcement, which is something we haven’t had before,” she said. “And it’s really what is making so many people endorse the bill, and that’s something that’s going to make the bill go forward.”
Roy Vasque, chief of police in Lawrence, Massachusetts and vice president of Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, said the bill is “beneficial” for everyone on the road since it ensures drivers are properly trained.
“From the law enforcement perspective, I think what we’ve always tried to do was make the road safer. And I think this allows that to happen,” Vasque said. “These individuals are licensed properly, they’re trained to go through the same training as other individuals applying for a license.”
According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center 2020 report, California experienced a 10% decrease in hit-and-run accidents when undocumented immigrants gained access to licenses. Other states, like Connecticut, that passed similar legislation, saw a 9% decrease in hit-and-run accidents.
Jeneczka Roman, the advocacy and coalition manager for the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said driving is a “critical tool” for undocumented migrants.
“Without freedom of movement, residents without status in their families face significant barriers in accessing healthy foods, grocery stores, food banks, good educational opportunities, stable and affordable housing and well-paying jobs,” Roman said.
Roman added barred access to transportation would impact work productivity and employment rates, all of which could contribute to health inequities.
“Our hope is that every resident has access to reliable affordable public transit in every region of the state,” Roman said. “We know that’s not true for everyone and everywhere, and these gaps leave residents a little alternative but to rely on their own personal transportation.”
Brinkerhoff said many undocumented immigrant drivers are afraid of getting deported if they are pulled over or have an accident on the road.
“The scariest thing that [undocumented residents] do all day is drive,” Brinkerhoff said. “But if you have a driver’s license, at least that part of your daily life will be a little bit easier. You will not be constantly in fear.”
Rivera added the need for the act became more apparent during the pandemic when public transit options were scarce.
“It does pose difficulty for essential workers that were needed to clean and to do other things during this pandemic,” she said. “They need to be able to go to work, to take their children to the doctor, to buy groceries. So this is a relief because people want to drive safely.”
Lenita Reason, executive director at Brazilian Workers Center and co-chair of the Driving Families Forward coalition, a group advocating for the bill’s passing, said the community was overwhelmed when they heard it made its way through the House.
“People are so happy. Now we just have to move forward with the Senate, and hopefully, before July, this bill will become a reality,” she said.
Roxana Rivera, executive vice president of 32BJ SEIU — a union for service workers — said her coalition is confident the bill will pass by reaching out to state senators for support.
“In regards to the governor, we don’t know what he’s going to do,” Rivera said. “We’re hopeful that he will see the amount of support that is upon the legislature and decide to sign this bill.”
Even if Baker does not sign the bill, it can still pass if the House and Senate reach a two-thirds majority.
Vasque said driving will help undocumented residents continue to contribute to society and provide for their families.
“[Undocumented immigrants] provide services to the community, they work in the community, they contribute to the community,” Vasque said. “I think that is the ‘American dream,’ so to speak, to provide a better living for your family and the next generation.”