The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill on Feb. 16 that would allow undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses. The Work and Family Mobility Act, or H.4461, passed with 120 votes in favor of the bill and 36 against.
The bill passed largely along party lines, with every Republican and eight Democrats voting against H.4461. If it clears its next hurdles, the Work and Family Mobility Act will take effect on July 1, 2023.
Representative Christine Barber, whose district includes parts of Somerville and Medford, co-sponsored the bill.
“This [bill] is really essential to helping people to get to work, to get to school, to take their kid to the doctor, to get a COVID test or vaccine [or] to get groceries,” Barber said. “During the pandemic, it [is] challenging to just rely on public transportation, so what I keep hearing is that this is really the number one issue for immigrants in our community.”
Since 1993, 16 states and Washington D.C. have passed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Iterations of the Work and Family Mobility Act have been introduced over the past two decades, but the bill has more momentum than past legislation.
Senator Patricia Jehlen, whose district contains Somerville and Medford, has worked to pass the bill since 2013.
“Many essential workers will now be able to get licenses,” Jehlen wrote in an email to the Daily. “Everyone will benefit when more drivers are insured and there are fewer hit and run accidents.”
The bill will likely face a vote in the Senate soon, and its passage there seems likely as over 90% of Massachusetts senators are Democrats.
Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, who represents part of Somerville, believes H.4461 is long overdue.
“Without this bill, people are effectively living in fear,” Uyterhoeven said. “This is a huge win for immigrant rights in Massachusetts.”
Governor Charlie Baker, who has vetoed similar bills in the past, has not publicly stated whether he will sign the current bill if it passes the Senate.
“Governor Baker supports existing laws in Massachusetts … [that] enable those who demonstrate lawful presence in the United States to obtain a license,” a representative for Governor Baker wrote in an email to the Daily, but declined to say whether Baker would sign H.4461.
In the past, Baker has expressed concerns that a bill like H.4461 would allow immigrants to use falsified documents to obtain driver’s licenses; however, Barber believes the current bill accounts for these concerns.
“We put in really strong identification requirements,” Barber said. “People have to show a passport or a consular ID card, which is similar to a passport, to get a driver’s license, so I am hopeful the governor will sign this bill.”
Even if Baker vetoes the bill, Democrats in the House and Senate likely have a large enough supermajority to override his veto.
“We passed it with a … comfortable 15 votes over the veto-proof majority,” Uyterhoeven said. “So at this point, it’s almost irrelevant what Governor Baker does.”
Besides helping undocumented immigrants, Democrats say H.4461 would make roads safer for all drivers.
“People without legal status will be able to be tested, insured, and licensed,” Jehlen wrote. “They will feel less fearful in traffic stops.”
Uyterhoeven expanded upon this point.
“We shouldn’t confound traffic enforcement with immigration and customs enforcement,” Uyterhoeven said. “By mixing those two things up you’re essentially making it so that if you need to report a crime … [it’s] a huge challenge.”
Barber added that the bill has earned support from district attorneys and police chiefs from around Massachusetts.
“[Law enforcement officials] don’t want to be pulling people over for driving without a license,” Barber said. “It’s not a good use of their resources.”
Barber attributes the bill’s success to widespread support among activist groups and local officials. Supporters of the Work and Family Mobility Act include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and dozens of local businesses.
“It’s been really helpful to have a broad coalition of people, including immigrants and incredible activists from Somerville and Medford fighting for this,” Barber said.
With the success of H.4461, lawmakers have their eyes on future legislation that could support undocumented residents. Jehlen, for example, believes immigrants should be eligible for services that other taxpayers receive.
“Many people without legal status pay into Social Security and Medicare, but don’t receive benefits,” Jehlen wrote. “If they could gain legal status through federal law changes, it would help many families gain more economic security.”
Uyterhoeven also noted that many undocumented students are ineligible for in-state tuition, even if they are strong academic performers.
“I think we always want to pat ourselves on the back, but there’s so much more we have to do to support immigrants,” Uyterhoeven said. “We can’t wait 20 years for the next important legislation. It’s just so critical that we continue to move forward on these issues.”