Pandemic Pushes Debate Over Driver’s Licenses

Erica drives hundreds of miles a week. “It’s impossible for me to have same life without the car,” she told GBH News. “Without the driver license or not, I am driving.” (Meredith Nierman/GBH News)

Hailed as heroes during the pandemic, essential workers have cared for the elderly in nursing homes and kept food supplies going from farms to supermarkets. But thousands of these workers in Massachusetts are also undocumented immigrants facing a hard choice — risk driving illegally to keep these essential jobs, or stop working.

With immigrant communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, the debate about whether to allow unauthorized immigrants in the state to get driver’s licenses is heating up.

Some lawmakers on Beacon Hill are hoping to vote this session on a bill that would make this legal, as has happened in 15 other states and D.C., including neighbors Connecticut, New York and Vermont. The bill successfully came out of transportation committee in February and has 88 co-sponsors. However, anti-immigrant groups along with the state GOP have pushed back, and Gov. Baker has threatened to veto it.

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 goes through. State Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn), who co-wrote it, said it is important to pass now because workers who have shown up during the pandemic are being put at added risk by not having legal access to driving.

“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,” Crighton said. “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.”

And some argue that not allowing undocumented workers to drive legally is increasing their risk of getting the virus; in Nantucket, a spike of 15 COVID cases earlier this fall was linked to immigrant workers sharing cars. Roberto Santamaria, the island’s health director, said carpooling is common among this workforce.

Read the rest of this story at WGBH’s website.