New push for drivers licenses for undocumented workers as COVID-19 cases surge

Hugo Balta

Undocumented immigrants do many of the essential work that is keeping the country moving during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of them have the burden of deciding whether to ride a crowded bus or drive without a license to get to work.

Risking the health of these essential workers has once again sparked the debate about Bill S2641 which would allow undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts to get a driver’s license. The bill is in the Senate Ways and Means Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature. 

“Many of these folks who have been hailed and praised are essential workers, whether they’re in the grocery store or helping take care of our loved ones in long-term care facilities”, said Brendan Crighton, the Massachusetts legislator who co-wrote the bill in an interview with NPR. “These are the folks on the front lines. How do we reward them? We tell them that they have to break the law to drive.”

Massachusetts lawmaker Sonia Chang-Diaz said allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses would boost job opportunities in communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

“The granting of those driver’s licenses is a big lever to enable individuals and families to earn financial capacity that we’re trying to get to them via state spending,” she said.

Critics of the legislation argue giving undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses would make the state less safe, while immigrant rights advocates argue that the state would be safer because fewer people who rely on cars for work would be driving unlicensed on local roads.

Earlier this year, MASS LIVE reported that a 2017 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which analyzed the short-term impact of California’s law to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, suggests that the policy did not lead to an increase or decrease of accidence or fatal accidents. It did reduce the likelihood of hit-and-run crashes, which the researchers argue improve traffic safety and decrease insurance costs for California drivers.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimates 185,000 undocumented immigrants would benefit if the bill became law.

As of January 1, 2021, 16 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico will issue driver’s licenses or permits to some or all of the undocumented population residing in the United States.

(Cover Photo: Immigrant rights activists rally for driver’s licenses in Boston. Chris Burrell/GBH)