A long-debated proposal to expand driver’s license access to undocumented immigrants took a major step Thursday toward becoming law, clearing the Senate with a strong enough margin to overcome the prospect of Gov. Charlie Baker’s formal opposition, the State House News Service reported.
Senators voted 32-8 in favor of the controversial reform, which has drawn skepticism from Baker and split voters. Five Democrats joined the chamber’s three Republicans in dissent, but backers still got more than enough favorable votes on record to signal the Senate would clear the two-thirds vote needed to override a potential veto. The House passed a similar bill by a veto-proof 120-36 margin in February.
Pitching the bill as a road safety and immigration measure, supporters said it would ensure that some of the 185,000 immigrants who already live in Massachusetts without legal status are properly tested before driving and relieve their fears of traffic stops spiraling into devastating consequences.
Legislators have several more steps to complete before the bill can become state law. House and Senate leaders will need to agree on final language to send to Baker’s desk, which they could try to do informally — senators previously said the changes they made before bringing the proposal to the floor were technical in nature — or by appointing a conference committee.
Existing state law prohibits anyone “who does not have lawful presence in the United States” from acquiring either a standard Massachusetts or expanded REAL ID-compliant driver’s license.
The bill would open up access to the former license type, which cannot be used to board a flight or access a federal building, regardless of immigration status. To apply for a license, someone without legal presence would need to provide the Registry of Motor Vehicles with a foreign passport or a consular identification document as well as at least one of five other documents: a driver’s license from another state, a foreign driver’s license, a birth certificate, a foreign national ID card, or a marriage certificate from any U.S. territory.
Road safety and immigration reform advocates spent years unsuccessfully pressing lawmakers to act, arguing that expanding license access would ensure undocumented immigrants who already live in Massachusetts are properly tested before getting on the road and rein in their fears of law enforcement entanglement.