The Democratic-controlled Massachusetts House of Representatives has passed a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.
The House voted 120-36 in favor of the measure. The bill still requires approval by the Massachusetts Senate, also controlled by Democrats, before heading to Baker. Senate Democrats are also hoping for a two-thirds majority vote.
"This is a public safety bill. It's about making sure we keep all of our communities safe, that we have drivers that are licensed that go through the right process, and that's why all the major chiefs across the commonwealth supported this bill, because they know it makes all of us safer," said Massachusetts State Rep. Andy Vargas.
The bill requires individuals provide documentation to obtain a license including proof of their identity, residency in the state and date of birth. The new rules would apply to those who do not have proof they are in the country legally, including those not eligible for a Social Security number.
Those seeking a license must present at least two documents. The first must be either a valid unexpired foreign passport or a valid unexpired consular identification.
A second kind of identification could include an unexpired driver’s license from any US state or territory, a birth certificate, a valid unexpired foreign national identification card or foreign driver’s license, or a marriage certificate issued in Massachusetts.
At least one document must contain a photograph.
The bill also states that immigrants eligible for the driver’s licenses would not be registered to vote as a result.
Undocumented immigrants in 16 other states, including New York, Connecticut and Vermont, are already able to get a driver's license.
If the bill becomes law, more than 200,000 people living without a legal status in Massachusetts would be able to apply.
"For the immigrant community, it's a really big step to be able to not fear that just for driving without a license could cost one to go to immigration court and risk a deportation," said Boston-based immigration attorney Carmen Bello.
Bello has told her clients about the pros of the bill, including being able to get car insurance, have a record of living in the U.S., and showing good moral character. However, she warns of other potential consequences.
"For people going to apply for their driver's license, if they ever had a record before with immigration, they need to see an immigration attorney to verify that they will not be more at risk [of deportation]," she said.
Some lawmakers worry that this bill could create a backdoor to the Registry of Motor Vehicles database that could be used to profile, target or report a person to immigration authorities. Vargas said legislators have addressed that concern in the bill.
"There's language in the bill that ensures that the data can't be used in nefarious ways," he said.
Under the legislation, the Registry of Motor Vehicles would be required to come up with regulations about what specific kinds of documentation are acceptable.
The licenses would not become available until July 1, 2023.
Immigration activists have long lobbied for the measure, saying it will help improve public safety — including for those who already have driver’s licenses — by requiring immigrants demonstrate they can properly operate a car and that they obtain the needed insurance in the event of an accident.
The bill has also won support from many of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys and the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police.
Critics of the measure have argued that driver’s licenses are a privilege that should not be offered to those not in the country legally.
“The bill may look simple, but the issue, as we know, is complicated,” said Democratic state Rep. William Straus, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation during the debate.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has expressed opposition to similar efforts in the past. An aide to Baker has said he supports existing state laws that allow those in the country legally to obtain drivers licenses.
Supporters are hoping the bill passes by the two-thirds majority in the Democratic-controlled House needed to override a potential veto by Baker.
If approved, the bill would still have to be approved by the Massachusetts Senate, also controlled by Democrats, before heading to Baker. Senate Democrats are also hoping for a two-thirds majority vote.
The formal legislative session ends July 31.