BOSTON — The state Senate on Thursday joined the House in overriding Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of legislation that would allow immigrants without legal status to obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses.
Thirty-two of the state’s 40 senators voted to pass the measure into law over Baker’s objections; the House voted 119-36 to override the governor’s veto on Wednesday.
When the new law takes effect in July of 2023, immigrants without legal status will be eligible for standard state driver’s licenses if they show documents proving their identity, date of birth and residency in Massachusetts.
“The House of Representatives’ vote to override Governor Baker’s veto will ensure that all drivers know the rules of the road and are registered and insured,” said Rep. Christine Barber. “We filed this bill to enable all residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a driver’s license so they can get to work, take their children to school and doctor appointments, and buy groceries,” said a statement from Barber, the Somerville Democrat who initially sponsored the bill in the House.
Supporters have long argued that the legislation will make roads safer by ensuring more of the 185,000 immigrants who already live in Massachusetts without legal status are properly trained, licensed and insured to drive, while also helping people who are currently ineligible for licenses get to jobs and family obligations, especially in areas without public transit.
The bill was backed by the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, as well as by New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliveira.
Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat, described the bill as not only a public safety measure but also as “a dignity issue that gives every family the ability to obtain a document that can provide them the ability to drive, take their children to the hospital, go to work.”
“And instead of being tax burdens, they’re taxpayers — that’s a benefit to Massachuestts, every single person in Massachusetts,” Gonzalez told the State House News Service.
Baker, who made his concerns with the bill well known as it moved through the Legislature, vetoed it nearly as soon as it hit his desk late last month. House and Senate leaders were just as quick to announce their intentions to override the veto this week, knowing they had the support of more than the necessary two-thirds of members.
While the legislation is supported by more than two-thirds of state lawmakers, a poll released last month showed that Bay Staters in general are about evenly split on the idea of allowing people without legal immigration status to acquire Massachusetts licenses.
As the licensing bill moved through the House and Senate over the last four months, Baker said he was concerned that the bill does not do enough to protect against an ineligible person unlawfully registering to vote. He said it puts an additional burden on local governments to make sure that only eligible citizens cast ballots.
He vetoed the bill May 27, the day after it was sent to his desk, saying that the Registry of Motor Vehicles lacks the expertise to verify the many types of documents that other countries issue and which would be relied upon as proof of identity under the bill.
Baker said the bill “fails to include any measures to distinguish standard Massachusetts driver’s licenses issued to persons who demonstrate lawful presence from those who do not,” and that it “restricts the Registry’s ability to share citizenship information with those entities responsible for ensuring that only citizens register for and vote in our elections.”
The governor is leaving office after this year and the bill’s implementation will largely be left to his successor.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday that he thought that the availability of Real ID licenses, which have more stringent identity documentation requirements, was enough to differentiate between processes for legal residents and drivers who are undocumented.
“He doesn’t agree. I understand that,” Mariano said of Baker.
Baker seemed at peace Monday with the fact that the Democrats who control the House and Senate were going to pass the bill into law over his objections.
“As the speaker said, I don’t see this the same way the House and the Senate see it,” he said. “That’s democracy.”
Rep. Steven Xiarhos, a Barnstable Republican and retired police officer, told reporters after Wednesday’s House vote that he also has concerns “about people’s identification.” He served on the conference committee that produced the final bill and voted with all other House Republicans in support of Baker’s veto.
“As a police officer, I know it’s hard to determine whether some document is real or not,” Xiarhos said. “To ask our Registry of Motor Vehicles to do that for so many people, to make sure they are who they are before they give them a license — that was my big concern.”
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, an initial House sponsor of the legislation along with Barber, said in a statement Wednesday that she is “disappointed that the Governor is spreading misinformation about voting access when he well knows the strong safeguards that are already in place.”
“Governor Baker’s own RMV has been processing driver’s licenses for years for those already eligible to drive but ineligible to vote such as 16 and 17 year olds, people with Green Cards, student and worker visas and TPS status. Sixteen other states have implemented similar laws already and have seen improved safety on roads with no issues related to voting,” the Pittsfield Democrat said.
Gonzalez, who described the bill as a priority for the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said he met Wednesday morning with Registrar of Motor Vehicles Colleen Ogilvie to discuss the new duties the RMV would face.
“This legislation will take effect the following year, so we have a year period of time to look at what other states are doing that are appropriate ways to make sure that everybody can get the proper documentation ready, but also have a license that will not interfere with any of the so-called concerns of the elections,” Gonzalez said.
Senate President Karen Spilka responded this week to Baker’s concerns about how the expanded eligibility for driver’s licenses will interact with the state’s automatic voter registration process by pointing out that the bill has language calling for the secretary of state “to make regulations to make sure that it’s implemented in the way that it is intended.”
“And I think 16 other states have figured this out in various forms,” she said. “I believe Massachusetts can as well.”
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