New Law To Grant Driver's Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants A Big Deal For Nantucket

JohnCarl McGrady •

A new Massachusetts law will allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses in the state for the first time starting on July 1st, 2023, in a move that could have significant impacts on Nantucket’s undocumented population—if the law survives long enough to be implemented.

The law, which passed after a supermajority of legislators overturned Governor Charlie Baker’s veto, stops the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) from asking about immigration status, in what proponents describe as a win for social justice and road safety.

“I celebrate this great victory every day,” Vanessa Rendeiro, a member of the Board of Directors at Nantucket’s Immigration Resource Center, said.

“This law is really important for a couple of key reasons,” Daniel Periera, Communications Director for the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said. “The first one is just the basic principle of social justice that we feel is at stake here which is that everyone has the right to get to work, to transport their family, to get an education.”

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Republicans plan on fighting this law. Geoff Diehl, the Republican candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe that he believes this is a bad bill and he will not let this law pass quietly.

"This bill is a bad bill," Diehl told the Globe. "Leah (Allen Cole, his running mate) and I will not sit by idly and watch the consequences of this bill take away the safety and democratic rights of Massachusetts residents."

But Periera believes this law will make the roads more safe for Massachusetts residents.

“By allowing everyone to become a licensed and insured driver, it increases the safety for everyone on the roads because you won’t have people who feel they are forced to drive, but might not be able to get insurance, to get a license, to get the training necessary to be safe on the road,” he said.

This legislation could be particularly important to Nantucket, which may have a larger population of undocumented immigrants than most Massachusetts communities, especially during the summer. Many local companies rely on undocumented immigrants for labor and often times, they end up driving.

“Nantucket has a large [undocumented] immigrant population, and I think a significant number are driving,” Rendeiro said. “I believe that this bill will make drivers more cautious and attentive to details, as they will become aware of Nantucket traffic rules and regulations.”

Cindy Garrison, a volunteer at Nantucket’s Immigration Resource Center, agreed.

“Imagine that currently these undocumented immigrant drivers have learned to drive in many different countries, all with completely different rules and laws. Or they have learned here without the benefit of learning our rules of the road,” Garrison said. “I think this is often very noticeable on our roads, often creating a chaotic situation. With proper licensing, our roads will finally be safer for everyone, including drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.”

If undocumented immigrants are pulled over by police, they don’t just face the normal penalties for driving without a license. They could also face deportation. For the 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, this makes driving a risky proposal. Many choose not to drive at all, which can damage their job prospects.

Undocumented immigrants are often uninsured, which combined with the threat of deportation, makes them more likely to participate in hit-and-run accidents. States that have passed bills similar to the one Massachusetts passed have seen the rate of uninsured drivers and hit-and-run accidents drop.

When California passed its law to license drivers regardless of their immigration status, it saw up to 10 percent fewer hit-and-run crashes per year. Similarly, Connecticut found a 9 percent decrease in hit-and-run crashes in the few years after it enabled drivers without status to obtain licenses, per Chris Burrell of NPR.

But opponents of the law argue that it creates another security problem. Baker and the Republicans who voted against the bill fear that the RMV might not have the expertise to verify the documents undocumented immigrants would present to prove their identities, which could allow them to obtain driver’s licenses fraudulently.

Additionally, Baker has argued that the law will let undocumented immigrants vote in elections they aren’t allowed to participate in. In his veto message, Baker said that the law would prevent the RMV from sharing relevant citizenship information with the organizations that ensure only citizens are permitted to vote in state and federal elections in Massachusetts.

Pereira dismissed that concern.

“That’s a misapprehension about how voting works,” he said. “Just because you have an (ID) doesn’t automatically give you the right to vote. The idea that this would let people vote in a presidential election or something, which is prohibited, simply isn’t true. This is specifically for driver’s licenses. This is about ensuring drivers are trained, licensed and ensured and getting rid of the uninsured driver pipeline for deportation.”

Opponents of the law are collecting signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot that would allow Massachusetts citizens to vote on whether to overturn the legislation before it even goes into effect. While they would have to collect the necessary signatures by August 24th to get the referendum on this year’s ballot, they can also wait and put the question to voters later.

Polling shows Massachusetts citizens are divided on whether they support or oppose the law. A poll by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe found that 47% of respondents approved of the law and 46% disapproved, well within the poll’s 3.5% margin of error.

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