NEW BEDFORD — Thousands of local immigrants are waiting to learn more about the process of getting their driver’s licenses after the state Senate last week approved the measure.
Helena DaSilva Hughes, president of the Immigrants Assistance Center, said she has already received a few calls with inquiries about what the next steps are and when undocumented immigrants can apply.
If the bill becomes law, it would take effect in July of 2023, so for now, DaSilva Hughes is focused on ensuring the community continues to get accurate information as final details have yet to be ironed out.
Both the state House and Senate have passed their versions of the bill. The Legislature will have to reconcile any differences before the final version goes to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
Baker has expressed opposition to the measure, including concerns about undocumented immigrants using a license to illegally vote, including with provisional ballots, but Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin told the Boston Globe this week that “nothing could be further from the truth.” If Baker decides to veto the bill amid these concerns, the Legislature has secured enough votes to override him.
Supporters say the legislation will not only open economic opportunities, but also lead to safer roads as some undocumented immigrants are currently driving without licenses.
“It’s all about making sure that we educate right now. Yes, it did pass the House, it did pass the Senate, but this is going to take a while,” DaSilva Hughes said.
Existing state law prohibits anyone who does not have “lawful presence” in the United States from acquiring either a standard Massachusetts or expanded REAL ID driver’s license, which is a federal ID that can be used to fly within the country or enter federal buildings. The bill would open access to the standard license.
To apply for a license, someone without legal presence would need to provide the Registry of Motor Vehicles with a foreign passport or a consular identification document, as well as at least one of five other documents: a driver’s license from another state, a foreign driver’s license, a birth certificate, a foreign national ID card or a marriage certificate from any U.S. territory.
Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center, said immigrant communities and organizations in New Bedford and around the state have established strong partnerships with consulate offices from various countries including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and Mexico.
More so prior to the pandemic, some of the consulates visited New Bedford on a regular basis to issue consular IDs, passports and birth certificates, she said, noting the offices have “strict protocols” to determine identity in order to issue the papers.
Williams said many people from Central America do have passports or consular IDs on hand, but others have faced difficulty in obtaining the documents, especially as of late during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it might be quite difficult to deal with countries who don’t have consular presence in New England,” she said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
DaSilva Hughes estimated at least 10,000 people in New Bedford would be affected, and said a majority of the population will apply for licenses once the process opens. A small portion she believes will not apply due to fear their personal information or status will be shared, just as some avoided getting a COVID-19 vaccine due to concern that healthcare centers would share information with law enforcement.
While some in the community live with fear amid real risks, DaSilva Hughes said misinformation can worsen that and in this instance, potentially keep some from applying for a license.
In consultation with Rolando Oliva of Cosecha Massachusetts, Williams said an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 individuals in New Bedford may benefit from the new law, and that she thinks most are more than ready to apply.
“They want to follow the rules, they want to figure out how to drive legally,” she said.
Not having a license has had significant impacts for families, Williams said, from children seeing their parents placed in cuffs for driving without a license, to some people getting deported as a consequence.
New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliveira has spoken in support of the legislation, telling The Light that most police chiefs support it.
He said driving without a license is an arrestable offense, but that more often New Bedford officers will only issue a citation and summons the person to court.
“First and foremost, it makes the lives of our police officers easier,” he said of the legislation, explaining officers encounter individuals who provide false information following traffic infractions or motor vehicle accidents, if they don’t flee the scene first.
This then makes tracking down the individuals difficult, whether they are responsible for the crash or the victim of it. Oliveira said if undocumented people are granted licenses, then they would have no hesitation producing that license and accurate information.
Though licenses are at least a year away if the legislation passes, Williams said now is an important period.
“It’s important for us to temper expectations as well, to let people know that you can’t just go to the registry tomorrow and apply for a license. A lot of different steps and pieces need to fall into place,” she said.
Some of those steps toward getting a license include studying for the permit test (which is currently available online), getting a learner’s permit, potentially enrolling in a driving school and then finally taking the road test.
“Even though it seems a long way off, once everything is signed and ready to go, this next year is an important preparation time,” she said, noting there may be some language, literacy and technology barriers throughout the process.
The learner’s permit exam is available in 34 languages, according to RMV. The driver’s manual for studying is available online in English and Spanish.
State Rep. Antonio F. D. Cabral said constituents who did not fully understand what the next steps are have also contacted his office. His staffers have continued to clarify the bill’s status and inform them of the process.
Cabral said he anticipates the House and Senate will reach a final version soon.
He holds office hours at Howland-Green Library in New Bedford every month, and just as people have met with him over the years to discuss this legislation, he expects others will come with comments or questions in the coming months.
Some material from the State House News Service was used in this New Bedford Light report.
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