On February 23, a press conference hosted by the Driving Families Forward coalition showed how the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow immigrants without status to qualify for a Massachusetts Standard Drivers’ License, is now positioned to pass and finally become law, not despite Covid, but in part, because of it.
Entitled “The Work and Family Mobility Act,” the bill advanced further in the State House last year than ever before. Unfortunately, after it passed the Transportation Committee for the first time, Covid put the brakes on the legislation, along with just about everything else. Now, the recently reintroduced bill has already garnered over 60 cosponsors, and the coalition behind it, Driving Families Forward, has grown to include almost 250 civic leaders and organizations.
By size alone, Tuesday’s gathering demonstrated the wide support that exists across Massachusetts for permitting driving privileges regardless of immigration status. Broadcast live on multiple Facebook pages in three languages, the Zoom press conference drew thousands of commonwealth residents to listen to a range of immigrants, experts and elected officials, each explaining the benefits of the bill from a different public health, road safety, law enforcement, economic, or immigrant rights perspective.
The first expert speaker stressed one of the most urgent reasons for the bill’s passage. “We need every tool to help us prevent further spread of Covid-19,” said Jeneczka Roman, Public Policy Specialist at the Massachusetts Public Health Association.
A study by the Center for American Progress concluded that nearly three-quarters of the undocumented immigrant workforce is classified as essential, and essential workers are far more susceptible than the general population to coronavirus infection (55% more susceptible in Philadelphia, a recent study found). The current law further worsens the odds by forcing over 200,000 immigrants in Massachusetts to carpool or use public transportation – if they can. Outside Greater Boston, “public transit operations are far too limited to enable much of the essential immigrant workforce to get to work, buy groceries, or access reliable healthcare. This includes accessing Covid-19 testing, treatment, and vaccination,” Roman noted. “Drive-thru operations and remote locations require that residents have a car to get tested or get vaccinated.”
State Representative Christine Barber, one of the bill’s four lead sponsors, added that public transportation is also operating on reduced schedules during the pandemic, increasing the problem of overcrowding. “More directly, it’s imperative that families can access care, particularly people who are most at risk of getting Covid,” the Somerville and Medford representative continued. “All parents should be able to take their children to the doctor, safely and without fear of being pulled over for driving without a license.”
The health risk of denying driving privileges is particularly critical to the state’s 25,000 farmworkers, explained Phil Korman, Executive Director of the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. “To get to a farm job, many immigrant farmworkers need to commute over 20 miles. Public transportation is not an option in rural Western Massachusetts, so people crowd into a shared vehicle or a minivan. Then, after getting to the farm job, people need to commute from one part of the farm to the other, and the farmland is not together — it’s in another town.”
Korman also pinpointed further problems with the vaccination program. “Thankfully, the Baker administration does consider farmworkers to be essential. But, again, when you take a look at a lot of the vaccine appointment sites, they’re requiring ‘state I.D.’ whatever that might be, though we all think of it as driver’s licenses. So all I can say is, as a commonwealth, we can’t keep telling ourselves that people who work on farms are essential because we depend on them to feed our families, and at the same time, deny them the right to legally drive, which puts them at a higher risk to get deathly sick in the middle of a pandemic.”
To stress the urgency of this health threat, the bill has now been officially renamed “An Act Relative to Work and Family Mobility During and Subsequent to the COVID-19 Emergency” (HD.448 and SD.273). Indeed, some of the myriad other reasons for passing the legislation have also grown more pressing since March 2020.
“In this past year like no other, we have seen the bright spotlights shone on the many inequalities and injustices that have long existed in our commonwealth and in our country,” said another lead sponsor, Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, of Pittsfield.
“Not only is it a safety issue, it’s an equity issue,” Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer concurred. “It’s really about economic mobility and recovery. As we move through this pandemic, many of the people that have suffered the most are our people, our Black and brown community, and certainly our immigrant community here in Framingham.”
Other speakers stressed the economic benefits of the bill for all state residents. “Mass Budget estimates that the commonwealth would receive about $4.5 million in fees from new applicants,” said the bill’s newest lead sponsor, State Senator Adam Gomez, of Hampden. “Fewer uninsured motorists and more drivers in insurance pools could also lower everyone’s insurance rates. In states like New Jersey, which recently passed this law, it’s estimated that insurance companies would bring in about $233 million in additional premiums each year, and the state of New Jersey would take in a whopping $11.7 million in license fees.”
Gomez concluded, “That’s why 140 businesses across the state, including Eastern Bank and the Alliance for Business Leadership, endorsed this bill last session.”
“On behalf of insurance companies and our people, I support this bill,” said Tiago Prado, CEO of BRZ Insurance and formerly an undocumented immigrant. “It will make insurance more affordable for all Massachusetts residents [because] the insurance risk will go down….As an insurance agency owner, I witness this struggle every day.”
Other speakers noted that, even without Covid, the safety benefits of the bill are irrefutable. States from Connecticut to California have enjoyed decreases of up to ten percent in hit-and-run accidents since passing similar laws, said another of the bill’s lead sponsors, Senator Brendan Crighton, of Lynn and environs. “If we want to have the safest possible roads in Massachusetts, we must have an equal system in place that allows every resident of age to have the ability to earn a drivers’ license – to take a driver’s education course, to take a road test, to take a vision test, and to get insurance. One’s citizenship status has nothing to do with their ability to safely operate a vehicle.”
According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, between 41,000 and 78,000 drivers in Massachusetts would obtain licenses within the first three years of the bill’s implementation.
“This legislation will increase the number of tested and insured motorists,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan agreed. “As a criminal justice professional, I know. I’ve represented people in district courts as a criminal defense attorney — it was unnecessary. What we have right now is 16 states– and Washington D.C. and also Puerto Rico –that have led the way. There’s no reason that Massachusetts can’t be a leader and make sure that all our immigrants are embraced, that we welcome them, not just into our communities, but onto the very roads that we are on.”
Throughout the press conference, immigrants attested to the human cost of linking driving privileges to federal immigration enforcement, regardless of the administration in Washington.
Irma Lemus, Community Leader at Movimiento Cosecha, shared the story of Nelson, who was stopped for driving without a license on route to care for his three-day-old daughter. As a result, he was detained for a year and then deported to Guatemala. “We have a lot of members of our community who have not even been able to know their own children,” Lemus said.
Everett Hospital security officer David Andrade spoke of the problem he faced when he suffered a temporary break in his DACA status. “Just one little hiccup, I lost my job, I lost my driver’s license. You can’t live a normal life without that one simple I.D.”
Katherine Yessenia Lopez spoke about having to drive to two jobs while she and her two children were trapped in a life with her abuser. “When I left home every morning, I did not know if I was going to see my kids again because I knew if the police stopped me, they could call immigration,” she said. Once, while a friend drove her to get diapers, the police stopped them outside Framingham and impounded the car, leaving Lopez, her friend, and Lopez’s two toddlers stranded on the street. “I remember it was cold. My kids were scared, and my daughter asked, ‘Why did they take the car? I want to go home, mommy.’”
Eventually Lopez managed to leave her abuser, and with the help of REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, she obtained the protections of a U Visa that have allowed her to gain permanent residency and become a medical assistant. But she knows she was lucky. “I was not sure which was worse, being arrested or being afraid of him,” Lopez said. “Maybe if I’d had a license, it could have felt safer to escape.”
“No matter what is happening on the national level,” Rep. Farley Bouvier stressed in her remarks, “driver’s licenses are squarely in the purview of state governments. And this allowing, requiring, all drivers’ in Massachusetts to have a license, to be trained, to be insured, is the single best way to help our immigrant neighbors in their lives every day.”