Is Massachusetts’ new law to allow immigrants living here without legal status in the country to apply for state driver’s licenses a matter of public safety or a statement of lax immigration policy? It depends who you ask.
The lines were pretty clearly drawn this weekend in a WBZ-TV debate between Democratic state Sen. Lydia Edwards and Republican nominee for attorney general Jay McMahon.
Edwards, advocating for a “yes” vote when the question of whether to keep the law in place appears on the November statewide ballot, repeatedly argued that the measure is nothing more than making sure that more people driving on Massachusetts roads are “licensed, tested and insured.”
McMahon, urging voters to say “no” to the law and repeal it, said it unduly rewards people who did not enter the United States “the right way” and makes Massachusetts a “magnet” for illegal immigration.
The Legislature passed the law over Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto and opponents easily gathered more than enough signatures to give voters the opportunity to repeal the policy on the November ballot. The Republican Party and some of its statewide candidates like McMahon expect that the repeal effort will gin up enthusiasm for their campaigns.
Under the new law effective July 1, 2023, all Massachusetts residents who are old enough will be eligible to apply for standard driver’s licenses, regardless of their immigration status. Immigrants who do not have legal status in the U.S. will need to submit other documents — including either a valid, unexpired foreign passport or a valid, unexpired consular identification document — to prove their identity, date of birth and current residency.
“This is not doing anything besides assuring that a person is able and has the permission to drive. And that just makes sense. That’s the safest possible thing we can do. At the end of the day, I don’t think we should be enacting policy that is about legitimizing or not legitimizing individuals and their decisions and how they got here; I genuinely don’t care,” Edwards said in the debate moderated by Jon Keller. “I need to know that someone is driving and knows how to drive, that they’ve been tested, that they have insurance. That’s the safest thing for me and my family. And that, at the end of the day, is all I think most people care about: their families and making sure that they’re safe.”
McMahon responded to that, “To be honest, I do care how they got here.”
“I care because it’s a public safety concern. We want to know who’s crossing our borders, and why they’re coming here. And when they come here illegally, we want to know why are they coming here illegally? Why don’t they go through the proper points of entry? Why would they sneak into the country? Now somebody would say, ‘Well, they’re just looking for a job.’ Well, if they come in the right way, if they fill out the correct paperwork and go to the proper ports of entry, they can get that,” McMahon, a Bourne attorney and former law enforcement officer, said. “Millions of people do it the right way. So I’m always suspect when someone, in their first act of coming into this country, and it’s an illegal act.”
Between the license law repeal effort that’s underway and Martha’s Vineyard’s role in what has become an ongoing national news story about the immigration policies and practices of some Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida, immigration policy has been thrust into the Bay State conversation weeks out from the Nov. 8 statewide elections. A couple of times during the 25-minute debate, Edwards said she would be happy to debate immigration policy with McMahon another time but that Question 4 is not about immigration policy.
“It’s about whether people should be vetted, whether they should be tested and whether they should be able to prove and earn a driver’s license in this state,” she said.
Though the notion that the new law would be a threat to public safety was a central theme to McMahon’s argument, he also acknowledged that there is support for the law from major police organizations, like the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, and offered an explanation for law enforcement’s support.
“When you arrest someone, especially if they’re illegal aliens and they have no documentation, you cannot do a background check on them. So what the police departments are looking at is maybe there’s some identification so that they don’t have to arrest the person. … the departments don’t want to keep arresting these people and have them walk out the door of the courthouse paying a $100 fine,” McMahon said. He later added, “They’re gonna have to arrest otherwise, and they’d rather write a citation.”
Supporters of the law have repeatedly noted that more than a dozen other states already have similar policies in place.