Alicia Cortez and Bill Straus come at the issue of granting driver’s licenses to immigrants who lack legal status from different worlds.
Cortez, a 42-year-old Guatemalan immigrant brought to this country by her parents when she was 8 years old, has been fighting for most of the past decade to win the simple right to drive legally.
She and others like her, don’t want to worry that if they get in a car accident, it might lead to deportation, separating them from their children and their loved ones.
“We built this city,” said Cortez, a group leader at a daycare center in New Bedford and an active member of Cosecha Massachusetts, an advocacy group that has unabashedly pressured legislators to pass the driver’s license bill the last several years.
“We pay taxes, we do the labor work, we do the hard jobs. If they take our money to build the roads, we should be able to use the roads,” she said.
Cosecha, after fighting for almost a decade trying to compromise with state lawmakers, in recent years switched to a more empowered, demanding position. They say the new approach has worked better.
Straus, a 65-year-old lawyer who has been a moderate state rep for almost 30 years, has been fighting almost as long as Cortez to come up with an undocumented immigrant driver’s license bill that a veto-proof majority of lawmakers could agree on.
The Mattapoisett rep, who is the co-chair of the Transportation Committee that oversaw the bill’s road to passage, in a written statement said he felt the bill’s sponsors were able to convince fellow lawmakers that the new law is about protecting the public.
“They were able to recognize that the issue of driver’s license issuance is really one about public safety and ensuring that license holders are trained, pass a test and are brought within the insurance and public safety file system, while also allowing police to engage with drivers with the knowledge that the person operating the vehicle ‘is who they say they are’.”
The decade-long battle and negotiation between the immigrants and the Massachusetts lawmakers is an example of the American system working. Working excruciatingly slowly but nevertheless working.
After years of ins and outs, delays and negotiations, the Legislature finally got the license bill done this year. It passed a law that Gov. Charlie Baker, always with an eye toward the right-wing base of his party, could not successfully politicize.
The success was in no small part because of the leadership of the Massachusetts Major City Police Chiefs Association, which advocated for the legislation as a security measure essential to law enforcement knowing who is driving the vehicles at an accident scene. The success was also in no small part because Democratic House Speaker Ronald Mariano put his thumb on the scale for the driver’s license bill when former Speaker Robert DeLeo would not. That brought over enough moderate Democrats to make the legislation veto-proof this time.
But no sooner was the ink dry at this week’s bill signing ceremony that a Republican-associated group made plans to place a question on the November ballot that would ask voters whether the new law, which would go into effect on July 1, 2023, should be repealed.
A committee named “Fair and Secure Mass.” will be chaired by a Milford woman whose son was killed by a drunk driver who did not have legal status in Massachusetts.
Certainly, people who are reflexively against immigrants, and especially Latino immigrants who cross the border without papers, will be attracted to such an effort. The argument goes that we should not be rewarding people who come into the country without permission. But as Straus and the police chiefs point out, it’s not about rewards, it’s about keeping track of who is already on the roads. The immigrants themselves acknowledge that they already drive without valid licenses to get around.
But after decades of arguing about America’s immigration law, it’s difficult not to admit that the immigrants without papers are here because lots of employers want them here. And they are here because these determined immigrants gladly accept many of the low-wage and meager-benefit jobs that Americans turn up their noses at.
Everything is relative, and if you are from a country where gangs roam the streets and living wage jobs are few, America remains a dream country.
But we never put this issue to bed easily. In Washington, Boston or in New Bedford.
On the matter of immigrants without legal status, it’s always been challenging to know where Gov. Baker’s moderate reputation comes from. He has argued that the documents that immigrants will have to show to obtain a license — a valid foreign birth or marriage certificate, an unexpired foreign passport or consular identification document — could somehow be used to register to vote. The assertion is bogus. As Rep. Straus points out, many people who are not citizens but who are in the country legally already obtain driver’s licenses. There have never been problems with those non-citizens voting that he is aware of.
“If there was a voter integrity issue with the thousands of non-citizens who already have drivers licenses, Gov. Baker would no doubt have addressed this with proposals before this law was passed,” Straus wrote to The Light.
Straus is a clever guy, and he’s right to call Baker out on this, even though before the signing ceremony the governor had praised Straus for giving the Registry of Motor Vehicles a July 1 instead of a Jan. 1 start for the new law. It was a curious compliment — why wouldn’t the lawmaker give the Registry enough time to ramp up the procedures it will need for the immigrant licenses?
But that’s politics as they say.
The Republicans could certainly bring out a certain type of voter for a couple of lagging gubernatorial candidates — Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty — by putting the driver’s license question on a non-binding ballot. But it will be an uphill battle to gather the 40,000 signatures by the September deadline.
In the meantime, Alicia Cortez and her friends have been celebrating their victory. Those from New Bedford who could not attend the Boston bill-signing ceremony signed a piece of cloth symbolic of their win.
The Latino immigrants are growing in numbers and power, Cortez noted. They are now near the majority of the New Bedford school system. They hope people understand them and how hard they have worked, she said.
“It was the power of people that won this campaign,” she said.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.