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Driver’s licenses for immigrants: A matter of safety and fairness

'The whole immigration system at the federal level is so, so broken.' -- State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield

Nestor Vazquez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the United States for seven years, would love to have a Massachusetts driver’s license.

But Vazquez, who lives in Springfield and works for a company in Connecticut, can’t get a license unless the Legislature passes a proposal to allow immigrants without Social Security numbers to apply for licenses — something currently allowed in 11 other states from Vermont to California.

“A license is a necessity for me,” Vazquez said. “I need it to get to work, to go to the store for groceries, to go to the doctor if necessary. I’ve got four brothers here – I’m the oldest and the shortest – and being head of the family, I’m responsible for getting them to their jobs.”

It may seem counterintuitive for an undocumented immigrant to be eager to have a government-issued ID through which his whereabouts might be traced. But Vazquez, 29, and many other immigrants seem more than willing to take their chances.

“I am not concerned about the risks of getting a Massachusetts driver’s license,” he said. “On the contrary, I need the license. It will make me feel safer being able to identify myself to authorities.”

Vazquez spoke through an interpreter, Bliss Requa-Trautz, an organizer for Just Communities in Springfield. He said that because he doesn’t have a driver’s license, he has missed opportunities to be promoted.

“I’ve lost out because I don’t have a license,” he said, later adding, “If I had a license, I could buy a better car and move around without fear. Driving without a license is a felony, for which I could be deported. But for all of us who live in western Massachusetts, having a license is a necessity. Of course, I would absolutely like to get citizenship, if that were an option.”

A bill to overhaul the state’s licensing criteria, dubbed the Safe Driving Act (H. 3285), would allow state residents without Social Security numbers to apply for driver’s licenses and learner’s permits. Although immigration laws are a federal responsibility, supporters say the state needs to act on the licensing issue to improve the lives of immigrants who are already here – and to boost public safety by reducing the number of unlicensed drivers on the road.

“The whole immigration system at the federal level is so, so broken,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, a co-sponsor of the bill. “That’s why the states are getting involved with these small measures to make things better for immigrants until the knuckleheads in Washington get their act together.”

‘Visually distinct’ licenses

Even if the Legislature approves the bill, however, the new licenses issued to immigrants would, in the words of the bill itself, “not confer eligibility for any public benefit,” nor could they be used to register to vote. But license holders would have to obtain liability insurance, as do all other drivers. The bill directs the Registry of Motor Vehicles to design the four-year licenses so they’d be “visually distinct” from those issued to drivers with Social Security numbers.

The measure, submitted in last year’s legislative session, is now before the Joint Committee on Transportation, and a vote on sending the bill to the full Legislature has been put off until May 15.

“They’re delaying a decision,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I think, honestly, this is an election year, and that’s playing a big role in why this bill has been delayed going to the Legislature. But I think it has a pretty good chance of getting to the floor and being passed, but it may not be until next year that we get to vote on it.”

She expressed frustration that neither this reform nor the granting of academic scholarships to children of undocumented immigrants has become law in Massachusetts.

“We are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Farley-Bouvier said. “We are only talking about ourselves, and not the immigrants. As a result, there are fewer taxpayers and fewer full-fledged citizens who only want to work and make our communities better.”

At a March 4 Statehouse hearing packed with supporters of the bill, Celia J. Blue, director of the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, predicted the measure would generate $15 million in revenue and would improve highway safety.

Her testimony was backed up by statements from Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and city Police Chief Michael J. Wynn. The mayors and police chiefs of Holyoke, Fitchburg, Salem, Somerville, Newburyport and Revere also endorsed the goal of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses.

In a letter to the committee, Bianchi noted that “in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, it is our responsibility at the state and local levels to devise practical responses to the presence of undocumented residents of our communities.”

And Wynn stressed that “the core of this legislation is a directed effort to improve roadway safety.”

New York, Vermont debates

The issue of providing driver’s licenses to immigrant workers has been a controversial one nationally and elsewhere in the region.

In New York, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued an executive order in September 2007 directing the state Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to eligible applicants regardless of their immigration status. Like proponents of the Massachusetts measure, Spitzer argued that issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants would help all New Yorkers by reducing the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

But the proposal was met with a firestorm of criticism, particularly from county clerks whose offices issue driver’s licenses for the DMV. Kathleen Marchione, a Republican who was then the Saratoga County clerk, vowed she would refuse to issue licenses to illegal immigrants; she’s now a state senator representing a district that stretches from Saratoga to Columbia counties. Kirsten Gillibrand, then a Democratic congresswoman from the region and now a U.S. senator, also criticized the plan, which Spitzer abandoned two months later.

In Vermont, however, the Legislature approved a bill last year that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver identification cards if they pass the same written and road exams as citizens do. The immigrants’ licenses are not recognized by the federal government, however, so they can’t be used as identification to board planes, for example. The Vermont law passed with strong support from the state’s farmers; the state has an estimated 1,500 foreign workers on its dairy farms, most of them undocumented.

Brooke Mead, program coordinator for the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield, said the public safety issue is particularly important to the Berkshires, as the region has become one of the most popular destinations in the state for immigrant workers. Her organization deals directly with about 1,000 immigrants per year.

“We estimate there are about 12,000 immigrants in Berkshire County, the second fastest growing immigrant population in the state,” Mead said. “We have the most diverse immigrant population, from 70 different countries.”

Immigrants now account for about 10 percent of the county’s population, she said.

“Of those, between 5 and 10 percent are estimated to be undocumented,” Mead said. “And they live in fear and anxiety. Immigrants have become a convenient scapegoat.”

In the United States, she continued, there are thought to be about 20 million undocumented immigrants.

“It’s not in our moral or economic interest to deport 12 million people,” Mead said. “But in the absence of immigration reform, the states are having to do more. I hope the speaker of the Massachusetts House is being inundated with calls.”

Allowing immigrants to have licenses, she said, would relieve police officers of the obligation of having to act as immigration agents.

“We all want a more secure community, where people are innocent until proven guilty rather than being presumed to be doing something illegal,” she said. “It puts officers in a difficult position.”

But Mead said the most significant effect of offering licenses to immigrants would be the saving of lives.

“You have to drive in this rural area,” she said. “And it’s far safer for everyone on the road to have drivers who are familiar with our laws and have been trained to drive our highways – and have insurance, should they become involved in an accident.

“Our immigrant population is not going to leave until they have to,” she added. “They are here for a better life, and they have sacrificed in many ways. They work hard in order to take care of their kids and put food on the table. And as a community, immigrants commit fewer crimes.”

Mead said many immigrants have driver’s licenses from their country of origin. But if they have resided in Massachusetts for more than 30 days, they are required to obtain a state license. For now, they can’t unless they also have Social Security numbers.

“In order to get their car insured, they have to have a license,” she said.

Ticket to deportation?

Like many immigrants, Mead said she isn’t worried that the new Massachusetts licenses would be used by agents of the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to track down those who are in the country illegally.

“The reason the immigrant community favors this bill is that they don’t want an arrest for driving without a license on their record, which would be a reason for deportation,” she said. “But immigration officials don’t have the resources to or the time to trace the RMV [Registry of Motor Vehicles] database. Nor does ICE have access to RMV records.

“Frankly, ICE is up to its eyeballs in the work they have,” she added. “So I don’t think these licenses would lead to racial profiling. We have a pretty good relationship with ICE, and they don’t want to get involved in something like that because it would be so obvious.”

Mead also pointed out that the last overhaul of U.S. visa and immigration criteria occurred in 1965. A 1986 law for the first time established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, though this is rarely enforced. There hasn’t been any significant movement toward immigration status reform since 2001.

“As a country, we don’t want to have a conversation about immigration because it is so difficult to navigate,” she said. “So the states are having to deal with benefits such as drivers’ licenses. And the fact is there aren’t enough visas to go around.

“So many people have fallen out of status at some point because visas aren’t renewed or because of confusion within families. More people have experienced it than you think. They are from Canada or Ireland, for instance, and not just Latin American countries. It touches most families, where relatives or family members have green cards that have expired.

“And it’s the children who suffer the most. In this country, there are 3.1 million children whose parents are undocumented.”

Mead said Washington’s legislative paralysis on immigration could well be considered ironic, historically, given that North America was settled by immigrants.

“The truth is, a lot of us really don’t know how our own relatives got here,” she mused. “Or what status they had when they arrived.”


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