BOSTON — People living in the U.S. illegally will be allowed to get Massachusetts driver’s licenses under a Democratic-led plan that became law Thursday.
Brushing aside objections from Republican leaders, the state Legislature has moved to reject Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of legislation that will allow any qualified Massachusetts resident, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a learner’s permit and state license.
The state Senate voted 32-8 to override Baker’s objection to the bill. The vote followed a similar action in the House of Representatives, which voted 119-36 Wednesday to approve the override.
In both chambers, the vote was above the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto and went largely along party lines, with the Legislature’s Republican minority and a handful of Democrats voting against it.
Democrats, who pushed the bill through the Legislature last month with veto-proof margins, say it will improve public safety and the livelihoods of the undocumented motorists who are already driving on the state’s roadways.
“This bill will make our roads safer and make the lives of roughly 185,000 Massachusetts residents a little easier,” Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, a primary sponsor of the measure, said in remarks. “It will help them to do things that a lot of us take for granted: drop our kids off at school, go to the grocery store, go to medical appointments and work without fear.”
Crighton said the licenses won’t be to be a path to citizenship and wouldn’t authorize undocumented people to vote in elections or receive public benefits from the state.
Baker vetoed the bill last week, citing concerns about the ability of the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to verify the identity of people seeking a license, and the possibility that it would authorize undocumented immigrants to register and vote in state and local elections.
But Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who voted against the override, said in remarks Thursday that the final version of the bill that emerged from House and Senate negotiations “poses many threats to the integrity of our license system, our electoral system and by extension our system of public safety.”
Under the new rules, which will go into effect in July 2023, undocumented immigrants can only acquire standard driver’s licenses, not federally authorized REAL ID-compliant versions. Applicants will still be required to produce at least two official identity documents. They will also need to prove Massachusetts residency to get a driver’s license.
Baker and Republican lawmakers say the registry is not equipped to verify the authenticity of documents from other countries, raising public safety issues.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, said the changes lack basic safeguards and provide “no real guarantees that it will actually enhance public safety as its proponents have claimed.”
“Furthermore, it is grossly unfair for the state to be issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals that are identical and indistinguishable from the licenses provided to those who have followed the law to secure lawful presence or citizenship,” he said following Wednesday’s vote.
“This is bad public policy.”
During debate on the measure, Tarr proposed an alternative plan to create a new state driver’s license category specifically for undocumented immigrants, which couldn’t be used as identification.
Tarr noted a number of other states, including Connecticut, offer undocumented immigrants “driver privilege” cards instead of unrestricted drivers licenses.
But Democrats rejected the proposal and a number of other Republican sponsored amendments to the legislation, such as more stringent rules for identification.
The issue of authorizing state licenses for the undocumented has long been advocated for by immigrant rights groups and progressive Democrats, who have pushed similar proposals in the Legislature for nearly two decades.
Two years ago, immigration advocates staged a hunger strike and camped out in front of the Statehouse, calling on lawmakers to approve the changes.
At least 16 states allow residents to get a driver’s license or permit regardless of immigration status, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said by approving the new law, the state “takes a strong step to both strengthen our economy, and strengthen relations between immigrants and law enforcement.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.