Advocates rally at State House, urging Senate to vote on immigrant driver’s licenses
Immigration advocates demonstrate at the State House Thursday, urging state senators to take up legislation that would permit undocumented workers to obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses. Video by Gerardo Beltrán Salinas (@belsali inTwitter and Instagram), a Chilean journalist who moved to New Bedford four years ago and currently writes articles for newspapers for Chile, while producing videos for The New Bedford Light.

BOSTON — Local immigration advocates joined demonstrators at the State House Thursday, pressing Senate leaders for a vote on legislation that would allow undocumented workers to obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses.

Members of the national group Movimiento Cosecha stood gathered the State House with signs, then brought their demonstration inside, chanting and sitting in a circle. Some spoke in Spanish as a translator repeated the words in English.

Helena DaSilva Hughes, president of the Immigrants Assistance Center in New Bedford, said the march was intended to remind state senators of the urgency in bringing the critical legislation to a vote.

The Massachusetts House approved the measure, 120-36, in early February, surprising some with the wide margin of victory — enough to comfortably override a possible veto from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

Advocates were told the Senate would take up the bill before the end of March, DaSilva Hughes said, but with just one week until April, some are getting worried. Proponents have been pushing for a driver’s license law in Massachusetts for roughly 20 years, she explained, and this year’s bill made it to the House floor from the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, chaired by state Rep. Bill Straus.


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Sixteen states already have laws that permit undocumented workers to obtain licenses, which allow immigrants to drive to their jobs or take children to medical appointments.

DaSilva Hughes pointed out that those who argue the undocumented workers came here illegally should understand that their children are legal citizens if they were born in the U.S. And the children are disadvantaged when their parents cannot drive, she said. Also, some immigrants came to the U.S. with legal driver’s licenses issued in their native countries, she said, but international licenses are only valid for six months.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka has signaled her support, framing the license bill as a public safety issue. The legislation has also been backed by the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association and New Bedford Chief Paul Oliveira. Licenses provide police with identification after a motor vehicle accident, and immigrants with valid licenses would be less likely to flee an accident scene, law enforcement groups have said.

DaSilva Hughes believes the newfound public awareness that so many undocumented immigrants performed essential worker jobs during the pandemic has built momentum. If it does not pass this year — “after what the immigrant essential workers did during the pandemic” — she said it might never pass.

Antonio Caban, deputy communications director for the Senate president, could not indicate a timeline for the immigrant licenses bill, but said on Friday that conversations are ongoing between Spilka and her legislative colleagues.

An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 undocumented immigrants make their homes in New Bedford, DaSilva Hughes said, making up roughly 10 percent of the city’s overall population of roughly 100,000. She said she thinks the undocumented population may be higher than current estimates.

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