BOSTON (SNHS) – Immigration reform and road safety advocates have spent years unsuccessfully pushing Beacon Hill to expand driver’s license access to undocumented immigrants and, despite the objection of Gov. Charlie Baker, the policy could become law by the end of Thursday.
The House voted 119-36 Wednesday afternoon to override the Republican governor’s veto of the bill allowing immigrants without legal status in Massachusetts to apply for standard driver’s licenses here. The Senate, where Democrats similarly hold a supermajority, is expected to follow suit Thursday.
“The House of Representatives’s vote to override Governor Baker’s veto will ensure that all drivers know the rules of the road and are registered and insured,” Rep. Christine Barber, a Somerville Democrats who initially sponsored the bill in the House, said in a statement Wednesday. “We filed this bill to enable all residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a driver’s license so they can get to work, take their children to school and doctor appointments, and buy groceries.”
The bill (H 4805) would allow immigrants without legal status to apply for and obtain standard state driver’s licenses if they show documents proving their identity, date of birth and residency in Massachusetts.
Supporters have long argued that the legislation will make roads safer by ensuring more of the 185,000 immigrants who already live in Massachusetts without legal status are properly trained, licensed and insured to drive, while also helping people who are currently ineligible for licenses get to jobs and family obligations, especially in areas without public transit.
Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat, described the bill as not only a public safety measure but also as “a dignity issue that gives every family the ability to obtain a document that can provide them the ability to drive, take their children to the hospital, go to work.”
“And instead of being tax burdens, they’re taxpayers — that’s a benefit to Massachuestts, every single person in Massachusetts,” Gonzalez told the News Service.
Baker, who made his concerns with the bill well known as it moved through the Legislature, vetoed it nearly as soon as it hit his desk late last month. House and Senate leaders were just as quick to announce their intentions to override the veto this week, knowing they had the support of more than the necessary two-thirds of members.
The House accepted the final version of the bill with a 118-36 vote and later enacted it 117-36, while the Senate accepted the report with a 32-8 vote before enacting it on a voice vote.
While the legislation is supported by more than two-thirds of state lawmakers, a poll released last month showed that Bay Staters in general are about evenly split on the idea of allowing people without legal immigration status to acquire Massachusetts licenses.
The Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll of 800 Massachusetts residents found 46.6 percent oppose the proposal, 46.1 percent support it and nearly 7 percent were undecided. The poll was conducted from April 24 to April 28 and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Concerns From Baker, Other Republicans
As the licensing bill moved through the House and Senate over the last four months, Baker said he was concerned that the bill does not do enough to protect against an ineligible person unlawfully registering to vote and puts an additional burden on local governments to make sure that only eligible citizens cast ballots.
He vetoed the bill May 27, the day after it was sent to his desk, saying that the Registry of Motor Vehicles lacks the expertise to verify the many types of documents that other countries issue and which would be relied upon as proof of identity under the bill.
Baker said the bill “fails to include any measures to distinguish standard Massachusetts driver’s licenses issued to persons who demonstrate lawful presence from those who do not,” and that it “restricts the Registry’s ability to share citizenship information with those entities responsible for ensuring that only citizens register for and vote in our elections.”
The governor is leaving office after this year and the bill’s implementation will largely be left to his successor.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday that he thought that the availability of Real ID licenses, which have more stringent identity documentation requirements, was enough to differentiate between processes for legal residents and drivers who are undocumented.
“He doesn’t agree. I understand that,” Mariano said of Baker.
Baker seemed at peace Monday with the fact that the Democrats who control the House and Senate were going to pass the bill into law over his objections.
“As the speaker said, I don’t see this the same way the House and the Senate see it,” he said. “That’s democracy.”
Rep. Steven Xiarhos, a Barnstable Republican and retired police officer, told reporters after Wednesday’s vote that he also has concerns “about people’s identification.” He served on the conference committee that produced the final bill and voted with all other House Republicans in support of Baker’s veto.
“As a police officer, I know it’s hard to determine whether some document is real or not,” Xiarhos said. “To ask our Registry of Motor Vehicles to do that for so many people, to make sure they are who they are before they give them a license — that was my big concern.”
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, an initial House sponsor of the legislation along with Barber, said in a statement Wednesday that she is “disappointed that the Governor is spreading misinformation about voting access when he well knows the strong safeguards that are already in place.”
“Governor Baker’s own RMV has been processing driver’s licenses for years for those already eligible to drive but ineligible to vote such as 16 & 17 year olds, people with Green Cards, student and worker visas and TPS status. Sixteen other states have implemented similar laws already, and have seen improved safety on roads with no issues related to voting,” the Pittsfield Democrat said.
Gonzalez, who described the bill as a priority for the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said he met Wednesday morning with Registrar of Motor Vehicles Colleen Ogilvie to discuss the new duties the RMV would face.
“This legislation will take effect the following year, so we have a year period of time to look at what other states are doing that are appropriate ways to make sure that everybody can get the proper documentation ready, but also have a license that will not interfere with any of the so-called concerns of the elections,” Gonzalez said.
Republican state auditor candidate Anthony Amore made the rounds at the State House before Wednesday’s vote to voice his opposition to the override, describing concerns about the ability of the Registry of Motor Vehicles to navigate foreign documents, similar to those voiced by Baker.
Amore, who worked for more than a decade in security roles across the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration, said he spent five years as an immigration inspector in the early 1990s. In that role, he often had to inspect passports from those entering the United States, which Amore said was a “difficult time.”
“I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what a valid birth certificate or citizenship card from name-the-country looks like. If someone comes from Estonia with an Estonian citizenship card, I wouldn’t know, and I spent years looking at these things,” Amore told reporters. “Imagine someone at the RMV who’s dealing with all the things they’re dealing with already — a department that people running for auditor on the Democratic ticket have called an ‘atrocity’ — but okay, let’s let them handle these driver’s licenses. It just seems to be counterintuitive.”
If elected auditor, Amore said he would want to launch a performance review of the RMV “to see exactly how people are vetting a myriad of documents.”
Amore said he believes immigrants who are in Massachusetts without legal status should have access to some sort of driving certification. He endorsed an idea Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr floated during initial debate — which Democrats rejected — to create effectively a new, separate driver’s license category solely for undocumented immigrants that could not also be used as a valid form of government identification.
The Senate, which passed the final version of the immigrant license bill with a veto-proof 32-8 vote, is expected to override Baker’s veto during its formal session Thursday. The bill granting expanded access to driver’s licenses beginning on July 1, 2023 could become law by late Thursday afternoon.
Senate President Karen Spilka responded Monday to Baker’s concerns around how the expanded eligibility for driver’s licenses will interact with the state’s automatic voter registration process by pointing out that the bill has language calling for the secretary of state “to make regulations to make sure that it’s implemented in the way that it is intended.”
“And I think 16 other states have figured this out in various forms,” she said. “I believe Massachusetts can as well.”