Valley residents testify on bill to give undocumented immigrants right to hold driver’s licenses

  • A group from western Massachusetts boards a bus headed to Boston on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Local immigrants and their allies rode out to the capital to testify in support of a bill that would grant undocumented immigrants the right to hold a driver's license. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Supporters of providing Massachusetts driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants living in the Bay State, including Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, lined up Wednesday to support a bill filed by (seated) Sen. Brendan Crighton, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and Rep. Christine Barber. SHNS PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2019 1:55:28 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It’s not too often that a transportation committee meeting draws hundreds of people to Beacon Hill. But that’s exactly what happened this week.

A large crowd — including a sizable contingent from western Massachusetts — packed into an auditorium at the State House on Wednesday to testify in support of a bill that would grant undocumented immigrants the right to hold a driver’s license. Among the local supporters of the bill, known as the Work and Family Mobility Act, were immigrants, faith leaders, health care providers and politicians.

“A really wide range of people, including farmers, traveled out to say how this legislation would be helpful to the immigrant community in western Massachusetts,” said state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, who sits on the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation.

Fourteen states, including Connecticut and Vermont, have laws in place allowing all residents to acquire some type of license or permit regardless of immigration status, according to supporters.

Testimony lasted for more than six hours, Sabadosa said. If passed, the act would give state residents “who are unable to provide proof of lawful presence, or who are ineligible for a Social Security number,” the ability to apply for a driver’s license if they meet all of the other qualifications for licensure and provide proof of identity, date of birth and state residency.

Advocates of the bill say it will allow undocumented immigrants to travel to work, school, medical appointments and other important places without fear of getting detained and then deported for driving without a license. Public safety advocates also argue that licenses are meant to be a tool for improving road safety. Opponents of the bill, including Gov. Charlie Baker, fundamentally oppose giving those without legal status the right to a driver’s license.

A broad coalition of local immigrants and their allies, organized by the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, chartered a bus to Boston for the hearing.

“I know this will open up opportunities, not only for immigrants to feel more comfortable and safer but also for their children who are being deprived of many basic rights,” said Lorena Moreno, of Springfield, who traveled to the hearing with the Workers Center. “The fact that their parents can not take them to their extracurricular activities really makes my blood boil, I feel so bad for them. I think everyone should have the right to move around.”

Moreno, an immigrant from Mexico, has a driver’s license. But she said she knows many immigrants in the Pioneer Valley who can’t get one because of their immigration status. Those people feel criminalized, unable to even go to the doctor without fear, she said.

“I myself have been pulled over without apparent reason,” Moreno said. “One time a police officer, I asked him why he pulled me over. All he said was, ‘Well, you look lost.’ Really? Maybe I look different, like an immigrant? Let’s be honest.”

Others from the area testified that those fears have ripple effects.

“We depend on the weather and we depend on our labor force,” Michael Docter, the owner of the Hadley farm Winter Moon Roots, said in public testimony Wednesday. “Members of the committee, we are the farmers that feed you and you need to help us. And you need to help the farmworkers that feed us as well.”

In addition to Docter, among those from western Massachusetts who offered testimony on Wednesday — either at the hearing or in writing — were Cooley Dickinson Hospital President and CEO Joanne Marqusee, Amherst Town Councilor Pat DeAngelis and Kristen Wilmer, the program coordinator for the local nonprofit Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture.

In written testimony, Marqusee said that lack of transportation is a key issue that compromises access to health care and that too many people in the state already struggle to receive the services they need.

“Enabling all residents of Massachusetts, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a driver’s license will help improve access and decrease health disparities, particularly in rural areas,” she wrote.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Sabadosa said most of the testimony was in support of the bill. She said those who spoke in opposition to the bill cited concerns like the possibility of undocumented immigrants being able to vote with a driver’s license.

One of those opposed to the act is Baker. The Republican governor has previously said he would veto such a bill, and speaking to the press on Wednesday he reiterated his opposition.

“My problem with giving licenses to people who are undocumented is just that,” Baker said in remarks to reporters Wednesday. “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.”

Sabadosa said that the worries of those opposed to the bill are unfounded; green-card holders, for example, are already able to receive a driver’s license but can’t vote. Many of the common reasons for opposing the bill have been answered in states — including neighboring Connecticut, Vermont and New York — that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain some kind of licensure, she added.

Currently, the bill has more than 80 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. Many western Massachusetts legislators have signed on as co-petitioners on the bill, including state Sen. Jo Comerford, Adam Hinds and Eric Lesser, as well as Reps. Natalie Blais, Mindy Domb and Sabadosa.

Lesser, who is vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, declined to comment for this article.

State Sen. Donald Humason, R-Westfield, is not a co-sponsor of the bill and did not respond to a request for comment from the Gazette.

Sabadosa said she’s optimistic about the bill’s chances for passing this session, but she did note that the bill has been before the Legislature for years and hasn’t been passed.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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