Demanding driver’s licenses for all: Activists encamping at Statehouse push for passage of Work and Family Mobility Act  

  • Activists, including some from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, camp out in front of the Statehouse in Boston on Sunday, July 26, 2020, to demand the passage of the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would make Massachusetts the 18th state to grant undocumented immigrants the right to obtain a driver’s license. MOVIMIENTO COSECHA

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2020 4:12:22 PM

BOSTON — Through heavy rains and a heat wave, immigrant rights advocates have been sleeping in tents in front of the Statehouse as part of a campaign with one demand: driver’s licenses for all.

As the end of the legislative session on Beacon Hill fast approaches on Friday, activists are holding out hope that lawmakers will finally approve a bill that would see Massachusetts join 17 other states in giving undocumented immigrants the right to have driver’s licenses.

“We’re sort of down to the wire in getting this law passed,” said Andrea Schmid, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center who has been camped out in front of the Statehouse for 11 days. “We’ve been campaigning for this legislative session for the last two years, but more broadly this is part of a 15-year fight to get this bill passed.”

The Work and Family Mobility Act, as the bill is known, has long been a priority for undocumented immigrants and their supporters in the state. It would provide some 185,000 immigrants the ability to drive to work, school and elsewhere without breaking the law and risking deportation. And as the legislative session comes to a close, activists are pressing lawmakers to include it as an amendment to an economic development bill that the state House took up Monday, with the Senate to follow later in the week.

Schmid said that at first, it seemed as though the bill would be included as an amendment in the police reform legislation that recently passed in both chambers of the Legislature. However, that didn’t happen, and now the House has included it as an amendment in their economic development bill. The deadline for the Senate to file amendments to their own version of that bill is Tuesday.

“It is the intention, I will say, for the Work and Family Mobility Act to be added to the Senate bill as well, though that Senate bill just got released and we are now in the process of putting in amendments,” said State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, when reached Monday afternoon.

Comerford, who has been a supporter of the Work and Family Mobility Act, said that it makes sense to include the act as an amendment in the economic development bill.

“Allowing people to access licenses is an economic development boon,” Comerford said. “It’s great for workforce strengthening, and out here in western Massachusetts it’s particularly necessary since people don’t have access to robust public transportation enough to get them to work with confidence.”

Comerford said there is also a racial equity and public health imperative behind the bill — particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit communities of color disproportionately.

“One of the strategies immigrant folks out in western Mass have used to keep themselves safe when they need to drive to and from places is carpooling, and obviously now with COVID happening that is not something that’s safe to do,” said Annie Ricotta of Turners Falls, one of the activists camping out at the Statehouse.

Ricotta, who has been a farm worker in the Pioneer Valley for the past seven years, said that there is no other way to get around the region other than driving, and that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a license would make their lives safer.

The bill does face a powerful opponent in Gov. Charlie Baker, who has threatened to veto the measure if it reaches his desk. Schmid said supporters hope that’s less likely if it is attached to a broader economic stimulus bill.

“We’re going to clearly have to show the governor that we have a margin that will override any concern of his,” Comerford said. “And there is broad and deep support in the Legislature for this legislation.”

The bill has been backed by a wide range of groups, from 190 faith leaders who signed a letter of endorsement — including 27 from Hampshire County and Holyoke — as well as state labor leaders who are fasting in support. The Mass. Major City Chiefs of Police Association has also endorsed the bill.

The groups that have set up the encampment on Beacon Hill include Movimiento Cosecha, which said in a press release Monday that the activists have faced brutal heat as well as racist threats, including a man who reportedly said he would drive over the protesters.

Ricotta, who is one of the activists taking on overnight security shifts at the encampment, said that the longer the activists camp in front of the Legislature, the more that people are taking note — both supporters and opponents.

“I’m feeling hopeful — I think this action that we’re doing here is pretty hard to ignore,” Ricotta said.

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


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