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Pandemic Renews Debate Over Drivers Licenses for Undocumented Workers

Immigrant rights activists rally for drivers licenses in Boston.
Immigrant rights activists rally for drivers licenses in Boston.

Hailed as heroes during the pandemic, essential workers have cared for the elderly in nursing homes and kept food supplies moving from farms to supermarkets. But thousands of these workers are also undocumented immigrants facing this choice to keep their jobs: ride a crowded bus or drive without license.

As COVID-19 cases surge and immigrant communities experience disproportionately higher rates of deaths and jobs losses, the debate about whether to allow undocumented immigrants in the state to get driver's licenses is heating up in Massachusetts and in states across the South and Midwest.

Fifteen other states and D.C. have already changed their laws to allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally.

Massachusetts is home to an estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants, 70,000 of whom are expected to apply for a driver's license if the bill passes.

"Many of these folks who have been hailed and praised are essential workers, whether they're in the grocery store or helping take care of our loved ones in long-term care facilities. These are the folks on the front lines. How do we reward them? We tell them that they have to break the law to drive," said Brendan Crighton, the Massachusetts legislator who co-wrote the bill.

On Nantucket, a spike of 15 COVID cases earlier this fall was linked to four immigrant workers sharing one car. Roberto Santamaria, the island's health director, said Nantucket's economy would grind to a halt without its immigrant workforce and that driver's licenses are like a shield against the virus.

"Not many people would think that this 2-inch by 3-inch piece of plastic would be considered a public health intervention, but it is," he said.

The opposition hasn't addressed these pandemic arguments. Critics say undocumented immigrants could use driver's licenses to vote illegally and that they don't deserve a privilege like driving.

In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, expressing concern about fraudulent identities, hasn't budged from his stance a year ago.

"My problem with giving licenses to people who are undocumented is just that. There's no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are," he said last year.

Connecticut has found no cases of fraud over the five years since it allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

In states like Michigan that are also trying to change the law, backers said driver's licenses would enable the state's 130,000 undocumented immigrants to access drive-up Covid testing.

Massachusetts lawmaker Sonia Chang-Diaz said allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses would boost job opportunities in communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

"The granting of those driver's licenses is a big lever to enable individuals and families to earn financial capacity that we're trying to get to them via state spending," she said.

Erica is an undocumented immigrant who lives outside of Boston and relies on her car for economic survival. NPR agreed to use her first name only because she fears immigration officials.

'It's impossible for me to have same life without the car," she said on a recent Monday morning. "Without the driver license or not, I am driving."

Every week she drives hundreds of miles to clean houses, to make meals for schools, to volunteer at a food pantry in Boston and to take her daughter to school and doctor's appointments.

Until the law is changed in Massachusetts and 34 other states, the pandemic has left immigrants like Maria and her husband Jose from El Salvador with a choice between possible Covid exposure on public transit and encounters with police.

NPR agreed to use only first names for the couple who live in Springfield, Mass. because they fear enforcement by federal immigration officials. Scared of riding buses, they drive a car. But they've been pulled over several times by police, one of whom ordered them and their little boy out of the car alongside the highway.

"When we drive, we're scared that we could get stopped. We could get our car taken away. We could get arrested," said Maria, speaking through an interpreter. "But we have to bring our children to school. We have to bring them to their appointments. We need to drive."

Copyright 2020 GBH