In this photo posted to social media in July 2020, demonstrators bearing Cosecha's banner demonstrate in front of the State House in Boston with signs that read "Licenses now" and "Driving without fear." Credit: Photo provided by Cosecha New Bedford

New Bedford’s Rolando Oliva could not have been more happy Tuesday afternoon.

After years and years of work, he and his local branch of the group Movimiento Cosecha had succeeded in helping win the Massachusetts House’s approval for a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

It was the No. 1 issue for Latino and other immigrants in the city, who for more than three decades have come across the southern border to work in the local seafood houses and other entry-level jobs that the Gateway City provides, but who have not been able to legally obtain a driver’s license.

Without a license, many of the immigrants drive illegally and without insurance, vulnerable to deportation if they are stopped, and the loss of everything they have worked for in America. They are especially fearful of being separated from their American-born children.

And without licenses, many immigrants have also been driving without valid insurance, their advocates acknowledge. Motorists involved in an accident with these drivers face  the prospect of making a claim against someone without coverage. The immigrants were more likely to flee from a scene because of their fear of being deported. 

The Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, including New Bedford Chief Paul Oliveira, endorsed the legislation as needed to better ensure public safety and to allow officers to better determine identities and details at accident scenes.

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“We were really pleased with the vote,” said Oliva in Spanish, as Corrin Williams from the North End’s nonprofit Community Economic Development Center translated for him.

Oliva noted that Cosecha was surprised by the margin of the House vote, 120-36. Advocates had only counted 107 votes, which would barely be enough to get over the two-thirds threshold needed to override a veto.

The bill came out of Mattapoisett state Rep. Bill Straus’ Transportation Committee with a positive recommendation. And unlike previous years, this time it had more than enough votes to override a possible veto by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Cosecha over the last several legislative sessions had begun to assertively call out lawmakers who they believed had impeded them, including Straus. They had gone on hunger strikes, demonstrated in Straus’ Mattapoisett neighborhood and worked the press.

Members of the local legislative delegation have not been interested in shining a spotlight on the driver’s license bill, even if they supported it. Unlike earmarks for local spending priorities, it’s not been a matter that either members of the House or the Senate have issued many press releases outlining their positions.

In this photo posted to social media in October 2021, Demonstrators rally in favor of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Credit: Photo provided by Cosecha Massachusetts

The bill had come out of Straus’ committee in the previous legislative session, but it did not have enough support to override a possible veto, so it was never brought to a full vote of the House.

Straus has defended his work on the bill. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday but in December he wrote to The Light that, “I think most everyone understands that it would not have come from the committee without my working to get it done.”

So the Senate, traditionally more progressive than the House in Massachusetts, will now take up the legislation. Senate President Karen Spilka has already signaled her support, framing the issue as one of public safety.

Sen. Mark Montigny, who represents Greater New Bedford, including its suburbs of Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Mattapoisett, could not be reached for comment Tuesday about his thoughts. His aide, however, said that given that the House had made some changes to the bill, the senator and his staff are in the process of analyzing those changes and would be in touch.

A couple of the people who are willing to talk about the proposed law are the leaders of the local nonprofits that work closest with them.

Corrin Williams said she thinks the growing number of police chiefs who support the bill made the difference this time, noting that the immigrants have been trying to get it passed for at least 17 years.

“In general, I’m hearing they’re optimistic in the Senate,” she said. 

Helena DaSilva Hughes of the Immigrants Assistance Center said she believe the awareness that the undocumented immigrants performed many of the “essential worker” jobs during the pandemic has helped a lot. If it does not pass this year, after the awareness of what the immigrant essential workers did during the pandemic, she said she does not believe it will ever pass.

She called the House vote great news. “This is a big step forward,” she said.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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