By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- A panel of Beacon Hill lawmakers on Monday sent to study a controversial bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license in Massachusetts, a move that earned a condemnatory statement from an immigrant advocacy group.
Nine lawmakers on the joint Transportation Committee voted to send the bill (H 3285) to study, while three members voted for the bill to emerge from committee. Four members voted against the bill, one lawmaker reserved his or her rights, and three members did not weigh in before the Monday afternoon deadline for the committee poll.
According to the committee, the co-chairs were split in their votes, with Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) voting for the bill and Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoiset) voting to send the bill to a study, generally considered to be a move that kills a bill.
Supporters of the bill say it provides safer roads for all drivers by allowing undocumented immigrants who have to drive for work to become trained and insured drivers; licenses would also help first responders and health care providers to identify individuals in emergencies. Opponents say the bill will lead to increased fraud.
Current law requires people to provide a Social Security number or certain types of visa documents available to some documented immigrants.
A full breakdown of the committee vote was not immediately available, and McGee and Straus were unavailable for comment Monday afternoon.
The head of a top immigrant advocacy group called the move a "huge disappointment," and said they would push for the bill in the next legislative session next year.
"In our view, the politicians were more concerned about the safety of their seats, because this is an issue for non-voters," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition.
The bill (H 3285) is sponsored by Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield). "I'd rather everybody or more people on the roads who are driving have taken the test and having insurance," Jehlen told the News Service before the vote tally was released. "I think that would be a good thing."
Jehlen said in New Mexico, which has a higher number of people who are undocumented and has implemented a similar measure, the rate of uninsured motorists went down by two-thirds, and alcohol-related crashes decreased by a quarter.
Jehlen said the license cannot be used to obtain government benefits and the bill would not change any undocumented person's immigration status.
Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said he voted against it. He said he has a "tremendous amount of sympathy" and he supports the DREAM Act, which allows young undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors and have graduated from a U.S. high school, to attain U.S. residency if they serve in the U.S. military or a higher education institution.
But he voted against the bill because "this is an issue that needs to be resolved nationally," he said.
Pacheco also wondered if there was incentive for undocumented immigrants to apply for a license if they're allowed to do so. "They'd be coming out from the shadows and saying here I am, I'm here in your country and in your state and I don't have documentation," he said.
While he would have liked to have studied the issue further, Pacheco said, "I think we should be following the statutes we have on the books relative to driving. Period."
Rep. Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk) also voted against the bill. "How is having people who are here illegally getting a license going to make the roads safer?" he said.
He added: "It could create fraud, it also gives someone a ticket to travel elsewhere and from a security standpoint, we don't know who's coming in. and I'm not saying that these people are necessarily a security breach, but someone could slip through, get a license and travel wherever they want, showing they have a license."
The Safe Driving Coalition, which backs the bill, blasted out an email on Monday morning, providing a suggested script and phone numbers for supporters to call lawmakers on the committee and request a favorable vote.
At the March committee hearing on the bill, Gov. Deval Patrick's registrar of motor vehicles, Celia Blue, testified in support of the legislation, saying it could raise roughly $15 million in new revenue.