WGBH reports that 70,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts would be eligible for a license under the bill, which was cowritten by Democratic state Sen. Brendan Crighton and passed a transportation committee at the beginning of the year. But even as states that have expanded access have seen numerous benefits, “anti-immigrant groups along with the state GOP have pushed back, and Gov. Baker has threatened to veto it,” the report said.
This veto threat now comes with added pain for undocumented communities. “Many of these folks who have been hailed and praised are essential workers, whether they’re in the grocery store or helping take care of our loved ones in long-term care facilities,” Crighton told WGBH. “These are the folks on the front lines. How do we reward them? We tell them that they have to break the law to drive.”
As advocates, state leaders, and studies have long noted, legislation passed in states like New Jersey and New York has gone beyond allowing undocumented residents to drive legally. “The fact is that in those states, roads are safer, hit-and-runs are down, the number of uninsured drivers dropped dramatically, insurance premiums got cheaper, and immigrant communities contributed greatly to the economy,” New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul wrote in a Times-Union op-ed last year. It’s just common sense.
Roberto Santamaria, Nantucket health director, told WGBH that driver’s license legislation can in fact be a public health benefit, because many undocumented workers share car rides, which can increase COVID-19 transmission risks.
Some immigrants who recently became sick in the area “were picking up coworkers from multiple sites [and] were spreading COVID between the four of them in a single vehicle,” Santamaria said in the report. “Then those four would take it home to their spouses and family … Not many people would think that this 2-inch by 3-inch piece of plastic would be considered a public health intervention, but it is.”
Passing legislation in the name of public health has been further supported by legislators like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who in May held a virtual town hall for undocumented communities to share “their experiences on the barriers they face when they are unable to obtain driver’s licenses,” WBUR reported at the time. One immigrant, “Maria,” told WGBH that she fears being arrested when she drives but feels she has no other choice. “But we have to bring our children to school,” she said. “We have to bring them to their appointments. We need to drive.”
“Providing undocumented immigrants with the ability to drive legally will eliminate a major source of anxiety in their daily lives,” advocates wrote in CommonWealth Magazine this month. “During the pandemic, undocumented residents working at hospitals, supermarkets, and other essential jobs have put their health on the line to serve us. Asking them to continue to do so while denying them the ability to drive legally introduces needless stress in this new normal.”
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