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Sen. Brendan Crighton favors driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

(Seated from left to right) Reps. Brendan Crighton, Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Christine Barber testify in favor their bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver's license. (State House News)

BOSTON — State Sen. Brendan Crighton said it’s time for  undocumented immigrants to have the right to get a driver’s license.

But the Lynn Democrat acknowledged the measure faces hurdles, in part, because Gov. Charlie Baker is holding a stop sign.

The Work and Family Mobility Act, which was the subject of a hearing last week on Beacon Hill, was filed by Crighton and state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) and Christine Barber (D-Somerville). If passed, it would eliminate the requirement to be a citizen to qualify for a standard driver’s license.

“Fourteen other states have passed this, including Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., and the sky hasn’t fallen,” Crighton said.  “It’s not a radical idea. Citizenship has nothing to do with a person’s ability to safely drive.”

Proponents say licensing undocumented residents will increase public safety, reduce the number of hit and run accidents, build trust between immigrants and police, and increase revenue for the cash-strapped state.

There are an estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center, a non-partisan policy research center in Boston. If the measure passes, advocates say about a third of them will get licenses. Allowing these drivers to obtain licenses regardless of immigration status could generate as much as $6 million in the first three years in fees to the state, and it’s expected to lower every driver’s insurance premium by about $20 per year, the think tank found.

But opponents of expanding driving privileges insist granting licenses to undocumented residents reduces the incentive to follow immigration laws and would lead to voter, bank and ID fraud.

“It’s a wrong policy,” said House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading). “It’s rewarding people that are here illegally.”

Jones is skeptical of the sponsor’s claims that undocumented persons who want to drive will get a license, insurance, and register their vehicle.

“I don’t believe everyone who is here unlawfully will fall in line and follow that new option,” he said. “Some won’t take advantage of it because they don’t trust the government, others won’t because they can’t afford insurance.”

While Jones agrees licensing these immigrants will raise money, he said the new families who may come to Massachusetts because of the rule change are likely to have children who will attend public schools.

“That’s a cost because we are obliged to educate every child,” Jones said. “Supporters like to say if you’re against this bill, you are anti-immigrant. That’s not true.”

At the hearing, more than 400 supporters, including doctors, social workers, and law enforcement officers, filled the room to argue that tested and insured drivers will make the roads safer for everyone. They want every driver to know the rules of the road, pass a driver’s test, and be registered and insured to ensure public safety. 

But not everyone who spoke was in favor of the proposal. 

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, whose positions align with President Donald Trump, said he’s opposed. 

“Let me be perfectly clear on this … passing these bills will make it even easier for criminal illegal aliens to evade law enforcement and victimize law-abiding U.S. citizens and Massachusetts residents,” he told the panel according to a transcript. “Making illegal immigrants eligible for official Massachusetts driver’s licenses is not only wrong, but it’s reckless. It will have a negative effect on the public safety of the people of the commonwealth.”

Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters he does not support the legislation.

“My problem with giving licenses to people who are undocumented is just that,” he said, according to a transcript. “There’s no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are and a driver’s license is a passport to a lot of things, and I think our view is the law we passed, which basically says as long as you have lawful presence dictated by the federal government, you can get a driver’s license in Mass, that’s the policy we support.”

But Crighton said the governor is misinformed. 

“Our bill requires proof of residency and proof of identity,” he said.  

The measure has bipartisan support from more than 85 lawmakers. But there are 160 seats in the House and 40 in the Senate. A two-thirds vote is required in each branch to override an expected veto by the governor.

One thing Crighton and Jones agree on is the bill faces an uphill climb.

“I accept the fact that we are a liberal state, but I don’t think they have two-thirds in the House and Senate for an override,” Jones said. “We are very strong on gun control, gay marriage, and universal health care, but I don’t think we have to check every liberal box under the sun on every policy.”

Crighton said it will take work to get the measure passed, and correct misinformation on what the bill will do.

“We are not as liberal as people think,” he said.

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