By Madiha Gomaa
Boston University Statehouse Program
Opponents of a question on the Nov. 8 Massachusetts ballot say the Registry of Motor Vehicles does not have the capacity to verify foreign documents that would qualify immigrants the right to apply for a driver’s license regardless of legal status. But while the state is mum on the question, analysts say this has not been an issue elsewhere.
Sixteen states and Washington, D.C. already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. The bill’s passage made Massachusetts the 17th state to extend driving privileges to immigrants without status.
This law requires Massachusetts residents without legal status in the United States seeking a driver’s license to provide the Registry with either a valid, unexpired foreign passport or a valid, unexpired consular identification document, plus one of five other documents.
The RMV is not contributing to the conversation
Opponents of the law argue that the Registry doesn’t have the capacity or the needed expertise to verify foreign documents. The agency hasn’t released a statement or made a public comment and MassDOT declined to comment.
But a report by Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis, relying on interviews with other states’ motor vehicle bureaus, found that the question of identity verification using foreign documents is not an issue.
The report cites that “[The law] specifies that in order to prove “their identity, date of birth, and Massachusetts residency” applicants need to show either a valid foreign passport or consular identification along with other material – and that their full application must include a document with a photograph. Passports are generally considered highly trustworthy; and while some questions have been raised about consular IDs, they are accepted by other states and major institutions like banks.”
Repeal backers also argue the law would lead to potential voter fraud.
“One common concern is that unauthorized immigrants applying for driver’s licenses might register to vote. However, the RMV already handles cases of people who are eligible to drive but not vote – including lawful immigrants with green cards and new drivers under 18. The same approach could be adapted for unauthorized immigrants,” Evan Horowitz, the center’s executive director, wrote.
Advocacy groups are urging a yes vote
Franklin Soults, a communications strategist at Service Employees International Union, rejects the argument that the law would encourage more immigrants without legal status to come to Massachusetts. He added that there is no evidence from the 16 other states that have implemented similar laws and had them in place for decades that there is an increase in undocumented immigration.
“This law rewards everybody in the state with safer roads. It’s not a reward for undocumented immigrants. It merely allows them to go through the same rigorous processes that we all go through to get licenses and insurance,” Soults said.
Soults explained that undocumented immigrants will have to study the rules of the road first and take a road test, pay all the associated fees and get insurance, which will contribute to safer roads in Massachusetts.
Another issue generating confusion is Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto letter declaring this law would allow undocumented people to register to vote. At the same time, Secretary of State William F. Galvin rejected Baker’s claims.
“The Secretary of State is the one who would know best. He’s been in that position through Republican and Democratic governors alike, and he knows that the system is secure,” Soults said.
Soults said this legislation is about common sense, making sure that every driver on the road in Massachusetts is licensed and insured regardless of legal status. He said that the opposition seems to stem from some ideological convictions that aren’t always logical.
Soults said Massachusetts Republican Party leadership is opposing this new law in the hopes of creating a wedge issue to leverage more attention on their candidates.
“Nationally, we saw something similar with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ stunt of dropping desperate Venezuelan migrants on Martha’s Vineyard; he obviously thought this deceptive ploy would boost his political profile,” Soults said. “You can see that logic also at play with the “no” side when you consider their campaign literature, some of which prominently features the faces of several Massachusetts Republican candidates.”
Soults said that he’s confident that voters will understand that the driver’s license law isn’t about immigration. It’s about safety. “No matter what happens with Question 4, the immigration debate will remain the same, as complicated and unresolved as ever,” he said.
Massachusetts’s law enforcement backing
A coalition of elected and appointed law enforcement officials, including the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs Association, as well as many district attorneys and county sheriffs, favor Question 4.
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said that the number of uninsured drivers has decreased by 60% in the 16 states that have passed this legislation, including Connecticut and Vermont.
“This law made it imperative that people stay and exchange information when they have an accident, and because an immigrant is licensed, they don’t have that fear of deportation. So, this legislation is critical to the roadways and safe driving,” said Sullivan in a Northampton press conference.
Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane said that given the limited access to public transportation in the area, this law will help immigrant parents across the commonwealth take their children to doctors and schools, and it will help them get to work and be part of a productive society.
“In Western Mass, we know that we don’t have many options for public transportation. The Work and Family Mobility Act acknowledges that fact by allowing more people to go through a full licensing process and to purchase car insurance,” Cahillane said, adding that the law would help law enforcement across Hampshire County reduce the burden of unnecessary cases in the court system.
Cahillane also pointed out the important economic impacts of the driver’s license law.
“If you’re licensed, you have to pay fees. If you pay insurance, you’re paying into an economic system. If you’re going to work, you’re paying taxes. All these things will help drive an economic factor in this bill,” he said.
But Republican attorney general candidate Jay McMahon said fatal crashes are up in spite of a decline in hit-and-run accidents. In a debate on GBH, McMahon also questioned Registry’s legal capacity to vet foreign documents.
“The Registry of Motor Vehicles, who are going to be in charge of this, has no authority under any federal constitution or federal law to grant legitimacy to people who are otherwise in the country illegally,” McMahon said.
The new law would be set to take effect July 1, 2023.