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“A Safer Place Not Only For Immigrants, But For Everyone”: Massachusetts and Rhode Island Open Driver’s Licenses To Eligible Undocumented Residents

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In Public Safety And Immigrant Rights Win, 280,000 Individuals In Massachusetts and Nearly 30,000 Individuals In Rhode Island May Apply

In a historic win for its immigrant communities, Massachusetts this week enacted a law passed last year that makes roads safer and helps keep families together by opening driver’s licenses to eligible undocumented residents. Officials estimate that 280,000 individuals in the commonwealth will apply under the law in its first four years of implementation. Welcoming committees across a number of cities helped potential applicants with questions and appointments:

Among immigrants eager to apply for a driver’s license under the Work and Family Mobility Act (WFMA) is 74-year-old Raul Averdano, “a helper getting people to the market and food pantry, and doing so, he admits, without a legal driver’s license,” CBS News Boston reports. Finally being able to do his job legally will be “a relief,” he told the outlet.

The law will also help construction worker Mauricio Lopera “go from site to site,” CBS News Boston reported. But he said the new law will also give him greater peace of mind. Immigrants have been detained and deported after being pulled over for something as minor as a broken taillight. Texas Observer reported in 2017 how two brothers who worked in construction and had clean records were deported to Mexico within hours of being pulled over and presenting Mexican identification cards.

“Advocates who have pushed for this law for 20 years believe it’s about safety that’s already been demonstrated in other states,” CBS News Boston continued. That’s because tested and insured drivers also make the roads safer for everyone.

“The number of hit-and-run accidents have decreased because people feel safety in knowing that, well now I have this driver’s license that won’t put me at risk and I don’t want to put others at risk as well,” Driving Families Forward co-chair Chrystel Murrieta Ruiz told CBS News Boston. 

Driving Families Forward, a coalition of more than 270 groups founded and co-led by the Brazilian Worker Center and Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, defended the law in the legislature and a subsequent ballot initiative that sought to strike down the law before it even went into effect. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker had initially vetoed the legislation, citing completely unfounded voter fraud concerns. Thankfully, the legislature was able to override him.

But the fight wasn’t over just yet. Anti-immigrant forces then teamed up to put a repeal on the 2022 midterms ballot. That effort failed, when 53% of Massachusetts voters said the law should stay. Lots of other anti-immigrant forces failed in other areas of the nation too.

“Today, Massachusetts officially becomes one of 19 states to allow immigrants without status to get a driver’s license,”  32BJ SEIU Political Director Chrystel Murrieta Ruiz said in a statement received by America’s Voice. “We join with all our partners – and with the 20,000 members of 32BJ SEIU in Massachusetts, the majority of them immigrants and people of color – in celebrating this historic achievement.”

“When I began working on the issue over a decade ago, I would have benefitted from this law myself,” Brazilian Worker Center Executive Director Lenita Reason said in the statement. “I am now a naturalized U.S. citizen, and I am proud to say that, starting today, the Commonwealth will be a safer place not only for immigrants, but for everyone.”

There’s also good news in Rhode Island, where similar legislation opening driver’s licenses to eligible undocumented residents also just went into effect. “Community organizations said they are working with the Department of Motor Vehicles to educate their constituents on what comes with the cards and what is necessary to obtain them,” Rhode Island Current reported. Karen Alzate, a Democratic member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, touted the legislation’s beneficial effects. 

“It’s going to allow (noncitizens) to have a form of ID with them, so they don’t have to be scared of driving, being stopped by the police and reported to ICE,” she told Providence Business News. “Also, if they get into an accident they’ll be insured, and they’re driving already and can’t get insurance, so it’s really safe, and it’s going to have a positive impact on all Rhode Islanders.” The law will benefit nearly 30,000 immigrant Rhode Islanders, the outlet said.

One of them stands to be Estefana, who told Rhode Island Current in the days leading to the implementation that she’ll be first in line to apply. She asked that she be identified by only her first name due to her immigration status. She said she currently doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car, due to fear she could be separated from her children. “I don’t want that,” she told the outlet. “That’s why I don’t drive.” 

But under the new law, Estefana is hopeful that can now change. “We’re already saving up for a vehicle and I am looking for someone to teach me how to drive,” she continued.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island are just two examples of how, in continued absence of federal legislation, localities and states can take action to more fully integrate immigrant communities. What a stark difference when compared to Florida, which this month also enacted its own immigration-related legislation. But rather than taking steps to more fully welcome taxpaying immigrant communities, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature S.B. 1718 law has been pushing immigrant workers out, as confirmed by the bill’s own GOP supporters. Some workers frightened away from their jobs are in industries facing critical shortages, like agriculture and construction.

But DeSantis is also intent on kneecapping pro-immigrant actions in other states. In addition to harming state businesses and communities, S.B. 1718 contains a provision that invalidates certain out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants. While it’s unclear if Massachusetts licenses will be affected, Rhode Island is on the list of driver’s licenses that Florida is refusing to recognize

S.B. 1718 “turns its back on Florida’s proud tradition as a place of welcome and refuge for immigrants,” Douglas Rivlin, Director of Communication for America’s Voice, recently said. “When Ron DeSantis says he wants to do for the country what he is doing for Florida, we don’t know whether that is a promise or a threat.”