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Immigrant licenses hit roadblock Sunday, September 21, 2003
Michael Kunzelman Metrowest Daily News
BOSTON -- A bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain Massachusetts driver's licenses is inching its way through the Legislature, despite critics' concerns that the proposal poses a threat to national security and could encourage illegal immigration.

The measure recently earned an endorsement from a key panel of lawmakers, but an informal poll by the Daily News last week indicates that MetroWest legislators are sharply divided over whether to grant driver's licenses to immigrants who are living in Massachusetts illegally.

The bill's supporters, including state Rep. Deborah Blumer, D-Framingham, argue that the roads would be safer for all motorists if the state's estimated 150,000 undocumented immigrants can obtain driver's licenses and purchase car insurance.

Many immigrants flout the law and drive without either a license or insurance because they need a car to get to and from work, Blumer said.

"My basic concern is for the safety of all people using the highway," she added.  "I think the bill recognizes the reality of what's going on.  It's a very practical response to a problem that isn't going away."

Many other MetroWest lawmakers, however, are strongly opposed to changing the law.

"That's like saying let's give robbery licenses to bank robbers because they're going to do it anyway," said Rep. James Vallee, D-Franklin.  "If they're here illegally, they shouldn't benefit from having a license.  A driver's license isn't a right.  It's a privilege."

The bill -- sponsored by Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who serves on House Speaker Thomas Finneran's leadership team -- would allow anyone with a federal taxpayer identification number to apply for and receive a driver's license.

Under existing state law, an applicant for a driver's license must have a Social Security number.  Undocumented immigrants can't apply for Social Security numbers, but they can obtain a taxpayer ID number.

The Internal Revenue Service issues the numbers to anyone who is required to file an income tax return, but isn't entitled to a Social Security number.

Elizabeth Matos, immigrant rights coordinator for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refuge Advocacy Coalition, said undocumented immigrants are a vital cog in the state's workforce.

"In reality is that our economy depends on these immigrants, who have been working here for years in unsafe conditions," Matos said.  "This is about public safety on the roads.  Nobody feels safe driving alongside people who have never been tested."

Matos has been lobbying dozens of lawmakers to support O'Flaherty's bill, which received a favorable report from the Public Safety Committee this month.

The legislation is expected to be heard by the House's Homeland Security Committee before it could be debated on the floor of the House or Senate.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some lawmakers questioned the wisdom of granting driver's licenses to immigrants who are living here illegally.

"To get on a plane, all you need is a driver's license," said Rep. Paul Loscocco, R-Holliston, who opposes the bill.  "I don't look at that as an anti-immigrant position.  I just see it as a potential threat."

The bill's supporters, on the other hand, said the change would actually improve homeland security because it would allow the government to keep track of an otherwise elusive population.

"We would know where they are and where they're living," said Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham.  "I think this is a way to protect our citizens.  More people are starting to see it that way, too."

Other states already have enacted similar proposals, but not without considerable controversy.

In California, for instance, an estimated 2 million immigrants who are living in the state illegally will be able to obtain driver's licenses beginning Jan. 1. Gov. Gray Davis signed the change into law earlier this month.

In Massachusetts, the change is expected to generate an estimated $12 million in additional revenue from driver's license fees - an attractive prospect for a state mired in a budget crisis.

"In general, I think it's a good step to take," said Sen. Pamela Resor, D-Acton.  "You know that many, many employers are dependent on this labor (by undocumented immigrants), and it's not something that's going to go away."

Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, doesn't think the bill poses a threat to national security, but he also doesn't see how the proposal would make the roads safer, either.

"I am not convinced that there is a public safety need for this," he said.

Rep. Stephen LeDuc, D-Marlborough, said the problems associated with undocumented immigrants are a "huge public policy nightmare" that the federal government should tackle before the state takes action.

"It's a much bigger problem than just licensing," he said.  "There are great benefits to having an immigrant population here in Massachusetts but there are also a lot of public policy implications that Congress should deal with first."

Rep. Patricia Walrath, D-Stow, shares LeDuc's view that the federal government should take the lead on the issue.  In the meantime, she is leaning toward opposing O'Flaherty's bill.

"We've got to do something about it, but I'm not sure this is the way to do it," she said.  "I'm not sure that we as lawmakers should be contributing to illegal activity."

Rep. Susan Pope, R-Wayland, hasn't taken a position on the bill, but she does have some misgivings about the plan.

"I don't think there are any checks and balances," she said.  "If we're going to give licenses to undocumented immigrants, I would like to see them come back in six months to show that they have a job and are self-sufficient.  A driver's license is a privilege.  You should be a contributing member of society to get one."

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