Senate revisits driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants | News

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BOSTON — Senate Democrats are revisiting a plan to authorize driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, but unlike similar efforts in previous legislative sessions, the measure is expected to reach Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk for consideration.

The legislation, which is set for debate in the Senate on Thursday, May 5, will allow any qualified Massachusetts resident, regardless of their immigration status, to apply for a learner’s permit and standard state license.

If approved, undocumented immigrants could only acquire standard driver’s licenses, not federally authorized REAL ID-compliant versions. Applicants would still be required to produce at least two official identity documents. They would also need to prove Massachusetts residency to get a state driver’s license.

The proposal, dubbed the Work and Family Mobility Act, is nearly identical to a similar version approved in February by the House of Representatives.

It’s being championed by Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who invoked her own family’s immigration history at a briefing with reporters on Thursday, April 28, where she said that giving licenses to such immigrants will be “good for our economy, our families, and public safety.”

The changes have long been advocated by progressive Democrats on Beacon Hill, who argue that it would improve the livelihoods of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who are already driving on the state’s roadways.

Backers of the plan include state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who said the changes “will improve public safety on our roadways and provide accessibility for all Massachusetts residents.”

Another supporter, Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, said drivers licenses are crucial for everyone to get to and from work and bring their children to school.

“No one should fear detention or deportation over essential everyday tasks such as getting to work, school, doctor’s appointments and grocery stores,” he said.

To be sure, the Senate has approved similar bills in previous sessions only to see it blocked by the House amid opposition from Republicans and even some Democrats.

But amendments to the House bill to require more forms of identification and restrict undocumented immigrants who get driver’s licenses from registering to vote apparently helped sway skeptical Democrats who were previously opposed to the changes.

Supporters also tout that Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat running for governor, and the heads of more than 50 Massachusetts law enforcement agencies are backing the changes.

Lawmakers backing the move say it also could generate about $5 million for the state by licensing the estimated 40,000 to 70,000 undocumented residents who would be eligible.

But the initiative has its share of critics, largely Republicans, who say authorizing licenses would reward people who have broken the law by living in the U.S. illegally.

If approved, the measure faces the likelihood of a veto from Baker, a Republican who has repeatedly said he opposes giving licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Still, Democrats have super-majorities in both the House and Senate and the measure is expected to pass with a veto-proof margin.

The thorny debate over driver’s licenses for the undocumented is a perennial issue on Beacon Hill that has gained support among lawmakers in recent years.

Two years ago, advocates staged a hunger strike and camped out in front of the Statehouse, calling on lawmakers to approve the changes.

At least 16 states, including Connecticut and Vermont, allow residents to get a driver’s license or permit regardless of immigration status, supporters say.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at

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