Licensing law gives ‘new legitimacy’ to undocumented immigrants

BOSTON — The new law whose ultimate fate is in the hands of voters would give undocumented immigrants a “new legitimacy” in Massachusetts by allowing them to acquire driver’s licenses, and it would also create at least a slight risk of producing government documents that could be used to track people without legal status in the country, a new analysis has concluded.

Massachusetts is set to become the 17th state in the nation to open licensing access to residents without legal status, setting enough precedent to give state officials the tools to implement change with a few hiccups. , the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University wrote in a report Thursday.

While language lawmakers enacted this year against Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto include some safeguards, the report – which takes no position on the issue of repeal of the ballot – warned that its supporters and the drivers it would affect will not may rule out a possible outcome. of the law: a paper trail alluding to the Bay Staters’ immigration status that “could be used to identify and track people in the future.”

The Motor Vehicle Registry would need to create a digital record for each applicant, and while these would not explicitly list citizenship or immigration status, they would indicate a driver’s ineligibility to vote and potentially information about the foreign documents they used to verify their identity, cSPA Executive Director Evan Horowitz wrote in the report. Applicants under the law would also not be eligible for Real ID licenses, which U.S. travelers will need beginning in May 2023 to board domestic flights and access certain federal facilities.

Horowitz said the possibility that these records could be used to identify and monitor undocumented immigrants is “difficult to pin down,” but “is not imaginary.” He linked to a Center for Public Integrity investigation, which found that at least seven states shared drivers’ personal information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement since January 2020.

The Massachusetts law, which will take effect July 1, 2023 if preserved by the passage of Question 4, states that RMV files and communications between an applicant and the registry “shall not be a public record or be disclosed by the Registrar, except as required by federal law or as permitted by regulations promulgated by the Attorney General. »

“A presidential administration cracking down on unauthorized immigrants could demand RMV records as part of its efforts,” Horowitz wrote. “A future Massachusetts Attorney General could pursue new rules to facilitate access. Or, at any time, hackers could potentially infiltrate the RMV system and expose records.”

For many undocumented Bay Staters, the benefits of having access to a driver’s license — including possible relief from some fears that interaction with police will snowball into immigration enforcement — could outweigh these risks.

“The support for this law from many immigrant rights groups suggests general comfort with the compromise,” Horowitz wrote.

In addition to granting immigrants the legal ability to drive, acquiring a license also provides “a new kind of official recognition – in the form of a state-issued document that affirms their identity without reference to their legal status,” the report said. .

“To opponents, such formal recognition may seem inappropriate, given that the federal government controls immigration policy and unauthorized immigrants have no legal authority to be in the country,” Horowitz wrote. . “In contrast, supporters may view this as a step towards greater acceptance of immigrant families, making driving easier and also making mundane interactions like showing ID to enter a building or buying medicine easier. on sale.”

Opponents of the measure, which with the support of the state’s Republican Party quickly garnered more than enough signatures to give voters a chance to overturn it before it takes effect, argue that the policy could lead to illegal voter registration, particularly if RMV workers have trouble navigating the foreign documents that will be needed to confirm a driver’s identity.

Baker, himself a Republican, vetoed the law in May before Democrats pushed it through. He warned at the time that the RMV – which he oversees – lacked the ability to verify the identities of potential applicants and that this would “significantly” increase the risks of non-citizens registering for vote.

Nodding to other states that have implemented similar policies, the CSPA report said implementation “should be simple” with minimal impact on voting. While automatic voter registration is standard practice for citizens who obtain driver’s licenses, Horowitz said the RMV already grants licenses to people ineligible to vote, including new drivers under 18 and immigrants with green cards.

Horowitz also said RMV staff should be able to handle the change because “the universe of acceptable documents under this law is relatively narrow.” Requiring a valid, unexpired foreign passport or a valid, unexpired consular ID “ensures a fairly high level of standardization,” he said.

“Many other states have already taken this route, and with some technical tweaks and additional training, Massachusetts RMV should be able to follow,” Horowitz wrote.

The outcome of the ballot question will determine where licenses fit into the larger landscape in which undocumented immigrants can attend public schools, get free school meals, receive housing

assistance and are eligible for public health services like vaccinations, but are not eligible to vote, claim unemployment benefits, or participate in many federal programs like Medicaid or food stamps, according to the report.

The release of the report on Thursday completes the center’s independent analysis of the four voting issues that voters will decide on November 8.

Horowitz and his team have already exposed the risks and benefits of imposing a 4% surtax on personal income over $1 million (question 1), a proposed spending requirement for dental insurers (question 2 ) and the likely impacts of expanding access to liquor licensing. while reforming fines (Question 3).

Milton S. Rodgers