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Bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants gains steam among law enforcement

A bill has circulated for at least two decades in Massachusetts, aiming to give undocumented immigrants the ability to earn a state driver’s license. Now, it’s picked up more steam than ever before, bolstered by the likes of Attorney General Maura Healey and 55 heads of Massachusetts law enforcement agencies.

“This bill is about more than just operating a vehicle,” said Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian in an info session attended by several law enforcement leaders about the initiative. “It’s really about a lifeline to the services that we need to support our families and our communities.”

The bill, also endorsed by over 270 local organizations and eight sheriffs, would lift restrictions on undocumented drivers who pass state driving tests the ability to get licensed in Massachusetts. For the first time since it was introduced, the bill was reported favorably out of last session’s Joint Commission on Transportation.

Similar bills have passed in 16 states including Connecticut, New York and Vermont, as well as Washington, DC One estimate from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center found that up to 78,000 immigrants in Massachusetts would obtain licenses within the first three years of implementation, if it were to pass.

Pablo Ruiz, deputy director of SEIU, pointed out that the bill not only helps immigrants, but it also improves road safety. “We can impact safety on the roads for everybody when everybody learns the same rules, passes the same test, gets the license, is able to register their vehicle, and of course, insures their vehicle,” he said. “We’ve seen declines of hit-and-runs.”

Since the earlier iterations of the bill, lawmakers have tightened standards around IDs. Now, passports would be considered the “gold standard” for immigrants to get driver’s licenses, but other forms including consulate IDs could also be used, which Chelsea Chief of Police Brian Kyes, who also serves as the president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, noted have stringent security features. Non-citizen applicants would still be unable to register to vote when applying for a license.

Jody Kasper, Northampton police chief, cited one of the reasons for driver’s licenses as a practical one.

We’ve all been in those situations where we’ve had these car stops, we’ve been standing on the side of the road in the middle of the night, someone in a car, sometimes with a language barrier, you’re asking for a license, you’re handed miscellaneous paperwork. Ultimately, it really just causes confusion for the officer and for the driver, and also a high amount of stress for the driver, ”she said.

Kyes noted that this bill would also serve to build trust between police and the communities they serve, particularly in majority-minority cities like Chelsea.

“Law enforcement, certainly over 2020, 2021, was unfortunately painted in a very negative light,” he said. “We have to continue to work on building the trust that we’ve established every single day, every single shift, every single hour, every single interaction.”

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