By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Both supporters and opponents of a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses said Wednesday that their approach would lead to a safer state and more orderliness.

"A driver's license is so we can show that somebody is trained and competent in that endeavor," said Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who co-sponsored the bill and said driving is more of a necessity in the rural areas around Pittsfield. She said, "We have more than our fair share of unlicensed drivers because they do not have the option to take public transportation."

A Transportation Committee hearing on the bill (H 3285) pitted mostly liberal lawmakers and activists against conservative Republicans, while Rep. John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat, said the bill would not have prevented the death of Matthew Denice, who was dragged to death in a car driven by an immigrant from Ecuador.

"That individual would have still been driving the street, unlicensed and that's part of our problem," said Fernandes.

Ted Tripp, a North Andover resident, suggested the bill would lead to more fraud and theorized about a hypothetical change in gun laws so that people unable to prove their immigration status could still be licensed.

"You think this bill would make guns safer, or citizens safer from gun violence?" Tripp asked.

Fitchburg Police Sgt. Glenn Fossa said the lack of state identification in communities of undocumented immigrants made policing more precarious.

"As a police officer for 30 years, and many of those spent on the street in minority communities, I can tell you the fear is on both sides," Fossa told the committee. He said, "This is at least one step in the right direction."

The basement committee room that housed the hours-long hearing was too small to handle the large numbers of people, many wearing T-shirts in support of the bill dubbed the Safe Driving Bill and co-sponsored by Somerville Democrat Sen. Patricia Jehlen. For much of the afternoon the hallway outside the hearing room was filled shoulder-to-shoulder with people waiting to get in.

"To give identification to those who are illegally here allows our ID to essentially mean nothing. It becomes a form of ID that allows those that are illegally here to hide in society with those who are legally here," said Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, who said the bill would make Massachusetts a "magnet."

Carlos Cesar, an Azorean immigrant who lives in Fall River, said "hundreds" of his neighbors drive unlicensed and he expressed frustration at the state of limbo.

"I have nothing against 'deport them all', but let's stop playing games. Let's resolve this problem," Cesar said.

"It doesn't allow you to travel. It doesn't allow you to get in an airplane. It doesn't allow you to vote. In the bill it says it will look different, so you can't use it for any purpose except one, and that's driving," Jehlen said.

Registrar of Motor Vehicles Celia Blue said she supports the bill, which she estimated could raise nearly $15 million in new revenue and provide additional business to driver education schools along with other benefits.

"More motorists would be protected from losses from unlicensed drivers because unlicensed drivers are unable to receive insurance," said Blue. She said, "A safe driving bill would reduce the drain on law enforcement and the court system."

Under current law, people are required to either provide a Social Security number, or a relatively recent denial notice from the Social Security Administration as well as visa documents.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said from conversations he has had, he has learned immigrants are racially profiled by law enforcement, who ask them questions, such as, "What is your Social Security number."

"In Massachusetts, today, there does exist among some police officers, racial profiling," Eldridge said. He said, "This is happening in Massachusetts."

Mark Fisher, the underdog vying with Charlie Baker for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, was the first member of the public to testify.

"Illegal immigration is illegal. When you were elected you took an oath to uphold the law, and yet this bill is a slap in the face of immigrants who've come here legally," Fisher said. Fisher, who has called for a more ideologically stringent Republican Party, asked the committee to "uphold the law and do your job."

Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson said lawbreakers would not be affected by the legislation, and said it would send a bad message.

"For those who violate the law: It doesn't matter," Hodgson said. He said, "I don't think it's right, nor is it consistent with what this country was founded on."