It’s the number one priority of immigrants in New Bedford and everywhere else: passing legislation that allows undocumented individuals to obtain driver’s licenses. Without the bill’s approval — which has already become law in 16 states and the District of Columbia  — Massachusetts immigrants say they will continue to live in fear that a minor traffic violation could result in their being separated from their families by way of deportation.

But though the Bay State has a reputation as one of the most progressive states in the union, the driver’s license bill has failed here year after year after year.

A local branch of a national immigrants rights group — Movimiento Cosecha — says their organization hopes a change to more confrontational tactics will result in passage this year, and they have longtime local lawmaker Bill Straus in their sights.  

New Bedford’s Rolando Oliva says that about three years ago Cosecha stopped asking legislators to approve the law because they found that at the end of each year, the bill failed. Since that time, the group has taken to the streets demonstrating, and Oliva says they have protested in the Mattapoisett neighborhood where Straus lives, not to mention camping out in front of the State House itself.

They’ve targeted Straus, a longtime area Democrat, because he is the chair of the Joint Transportation Committee, where the bill currently sits. 

Last year, Straus’ committee voted out the bill favorably, 14-4 on a party-line vote. But in the waning days of the legislative session, it died — a victim of what one of its lead sponsors acknowledged was a shortfall of votes.

Democratic leaders must gather a two-thirds majority to override an expected veto of the bill by Gov. Charlie Baker, who has opposed the legislation, maintaining it would be too difficult to accurately determine undocumented immigrants’ identities. Proponents say that’s a canard as it is just as easy for a citizen as an immigrant to present a fake birth certificate when they originally obtain a license.

State Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville said that as the session wound down, she pulled the 2019 bill in the wake of strong headwinds over the police reform bill that was before the Legislature last year. 

The change in driver’s regulations had been part of a larger jobs bill, but the bill was refiled in the 192nd Session, which began in January. Cosecha Massachusetts has been dogging it ever since, including with a hunger strike and demonstrations at the State House.

Oliva said the group plans to protest at the State House again this Saturday, Dec. 11. He appealed for support from those present at a Nov. 28 New Bedford celebration of the immigrant groups that recently lobbied the Legislature for majority-minority districts. He asked them to have their children write letters about their experiences when being stopped for minor traffic violations. 

“We are collecting letters by children to be able to send to the head of the Transportation Committee, who is William Straus, who lives right down the street in Mattapoisett,” he said.

“We have done two actions already in front of his house, but he hasn’t bent his hand. So we’re asking your support in trying to reach him,” he said through Marlene Cerritos, a translator with his group.

Straus sent The Light a written statement that outlined some of the bill’s history in the previous legislative session. 

“I think most everyone understands that it would not have come from the committee without my working to get it done,” he wrote, and questioned the origin of Oliva’s remarks.

“Other than that I’m not sure where he gets his information,” he wrote.

Demonstrators rally in favor of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Credit: Photo provided by Cosecha Massachusetts

Straus, who currently represents Mattapoisett, Rochester, Fairhaven and several precincts in New Bedford’s North End, did not provide any details on how he personally feels about the specifics of the bill.

Though Baker and the Republicans on the committee are against it, there are also divisions within the Democratic caucus. Much of the debate has been over what documents immigrants will have to provide to receive a license. That special license would allow them to drive but could not be used for other purposes. 

One of the other lead supporters of the bill, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, said she is optimistic about the bill’s passage this year and praised both Straus and House Speaker Ronald Mariano.

“We are really encouraged by Speaker Mariano’s position, and Rep. Straus is working diligently on the legislation,” she said.

“I believe it’s a matter of when, not if.”

Straus has a long record as a moderate-to-progressive legislator, so it’s difficult to believe that he has some ideological reason that would prevent him from again supporting the bill this year. As he emphasized, the bill came out of his committee with a positive recommendation in the 2019-2020 session.

More likely is that Straus, who like all chairmen owes his position to leadership, is following the lead of whoever is speaker of the House. 

In the last session, Barber had 59 co-sponsors for the bill, and Cosecha protested outside both Speaker Robert DeLeo’s and Senate President Karen Spilka’s houses when the bill did not move as the session drew to a close. But DeLeo did not speak up on behalf of the bill, and Barber withdrew the legislation. Senate President Spilka had gone on record in support of the bill in 2019.

In the current session, which began at the start of the calendar year, first-year Speaker Mariano has made favorable comments about the legislation.

“As the former chair of the Financial Services Committee, with experience working on auto insurance legislation, I recognize the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing and insurance structures,” he said in a June interview with State House News Service.

Proponents of the bill have contended that it will make roads safer by making it easier for police to be certain about the identities of those they stop. They’ve also cited the value when an undocumented immigrant is driving without automobile insurance because they don’t have a license. The Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association endorsed the legislation last year, with the director saying it would promote trust between communities. 

Mariano, however, also indicated he wanted to know how the rank-and-file felt, perhaps given the opposition to the bill last year.

Rolando Oliva of Cosecha New Bedford speaks with immigrants about the bill that would allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Marlene Cerritos translated for him.

Oliva said he believes Mariano is in favor of the licenses.

“The one that has said that he’s ready to vote is Ronald Mariano, who is the head of the state,” he said. “And what he’s waiting for is William Straus.”

Oliva may earnestly believe that because when members of his group have approached Straus, he said the lawmaker has been noncommittal. Asked if he had met with Cosecha, Straus wrote that he does not ask those he meets with to identify their groups.

The way the Massachusetts Legislature works, it seems likely that Straus is simply waiting on Mariano, who is in turn waiting for those last four or five votes to come through so that the bill can survive Baker’s veto.

Besides Straus, there are four other local House members who represent all or part of New Bedford. They appear to be split on the bill. 

Rep. Chris Hendricks will represent the city’s first majority-minority district as the result of this year’s federal census. Longtime Rep. Antonio Cabral will represent a re-configured district that will be a minority-influenced district (more than 40% minority).

Hendricks sent a prepared statement that said he supports the bill 100% because it will make the roads safer as additional people get tested and insured. He also framed it as a justice issue.

“More importantly, it’s an equity issue,” he said. “If we are going to have a system that allows migrant workers to work, there shouldn’t be unreasonable barriers for those to physically get to work/school/stores etc.,” he wrote.

Cabral did not return The Light’s calls or emails asking his position on the issue, but he is a progressive and would be expected to support it, especially if leadership does.

State Rep. Paul Schmid of Westport, who represents a part of the far North End of New Bedford, said local police chiefs tell him they understand the benefits of the immigrants being licensed and insured.

“They understand unexpired documents may be hard to get, but they are concerned about way-out-of-date documentation,” he said, referencing the importance of police knowing who they are dealing with.

“I’m still trying to understand what is the best solution for this,” Schmid said, explaining that he understands there is some validity to the bill. He then gave his qualifier: “What we want to be sure is that we are safe,” he said.

State Rep. Chris Markey, perhaps the most conservative of the area reps, said he is not in favor of granting the licenses as it currently stands. He noted that undocumented immigrants are not allowed to work legally. 

The federal government is considering some sort of arrangement under which the undocumented immigrants could work, and that would change things for the licenses, he said. 

“Until the federal government supports certain things, I think it is difficult to say you can have a license and be here illegally,” he said. “The law pretty clearly says that having a license is a privilege.”

Legislative sessions run in two-year increments. It will be interesting to see if the immigrants can find the remaining votes in 2022.

For some it can’t come soon enough.

Alicia Cortez, a 41-year-old Guatemalan immigrant and member of Cosecha, told The Light that although she is a documented resident now and can drive, for many years she drove without a license. She has lived in the United States for 33 years and has five children and needed to drive to go to work and to take her kids places, she explained.

“It was very traumatizing for myself,” she said. “I was so afraid of having my children see me pulled over. That’s humiliating, you feel like a criminal.”

You are always afraid you are going to be separated from your kids and thrown in jail or deported, she said. “That’s why I’m in this fight because I know what it is.”

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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