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Driver's license bill advances

Unusual alliance builds for immigrants' rights

A proposal is quietly advancing on Beacon Hill that would give roughly 150,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts the right to obtain a driver's license, following a similar law that became a flash point during California's recent recall election.

The Massachusetts bill, attracting an unusual alliance of supporters that includes police chiefs and immigrant groups, would allow applicants to obtain a driver's license by submitting a taxpayer identification number that is commonly issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

Currently, Massachusetts requires motorists seeking a first-time driver's license to provide a Social Security number, a Social Security card or a valid passport, and three other forms of identification. That requirement shuts out undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for Social Security cards, but who work and pay taxes here and have IRS-issued taxpayer identification numbers.

The Legislature's Public Safety Committee has already approved the bill, and the new Homeland Security panel is likely to hold hearings on it in the next several weeks, according to state Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee.

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini have not taken a position on the bill, and a spokeswoman for Governor Mitt Romney said he has some concerns about it but has not decided whether he would sign it.

In California, Governor Gray Davis signed a similar bill into law about a month before the Oct. 7 recall election, drawing charges that he was pandering to the state's Hispanic voters.

As in California, the Massachusetts bill is creating controversy among lawmakers and immigration opponents, who argue that the state would be giving legitimacy to undocumented immigrants.

"A lot of folks are understanding that it is a very controversial issue," said state Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is sponsoring the bill. "One group of colleagues that I spoke to said these folks are illegal and breaking the law. On the other side, some colleagues from a public safety perspective said it makes sense."

Massachusetts advocates argue that undocumented immigrants are an integral part of the state economy and should be allowed to legally drive to and from work. They also emphasize that allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses will clear the way for them to get driver training and auto insurance, making all Massachusetts motorists safer.

"Giving someone a driver's license is not about a whole range of benefits, it's about letting people drive," said Reshma Shamasunder of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, which is lobbying heavily for the bill. "It's basically ensuring that people are driving safely."

But anti-immigration forces question why a state should allow undocumented workers to drive at all, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

By contrast, one lawmaker has filed legislation that would cancel a driver's license when an immigrant's visa expires.

"September 11th prompted me to file this. A majority of the terrorists that attacked the country had been equipped illegally with driver's licenses" from Florida, said state Representative Reed V. Hillman, a Sturbridge Republican. "We should make it difficult for people that are in this country illegally to get that type of documentation."

Despite the controversy, the bill granting licenses to illegal immigrants has won support from an array of immigrant groups as well as a police chief's association and some key state lawmakers.

O'Flaherty said it is unfair to assume that immigrants will commit terrorist attacks. "I don't think you need a driver's license to commit a terrorist act," he said. "I would venture to say 99 percent of those people are decent, hard-working people that are paying taxes right now and looking to get further ahead in the American dream. They are filling jobs that nobody else wants."

The Brazilian consul and a local Irish immigration group also support the measure.

"We feel like this bill is a very good compromise," said Sheila Gleeson, director of immigration services at the Irish Immigration Center. "It's a good opportunity to get people registered and into the system."

Andre Baker Meio, vice consul for the Brazilian Consulate in Boston, said the measure will improve local and national security. "We will have the mechanism to know better who can drive, and who the drivers actually are," Meio said.

The Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police pointed out that drivers with licenses are much less likely to flee the scene of a crash.

"We share your concern that the Commonwealth should not penalize hard-working immigrants, especially those that need to drive to and from work," the chiefs' association wrote in a letter sent to the immigration coalition. "From a law enforcement perspective, the municipal police chiefs support your proposal."

Supporters argue that by issuing more licenses, the state will collect an additional $11 million a year in the form of license, title, registration, and test fees.

North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Utah have recently approved similar measures, and Colorado, Indiana, Montana, Rhode Island, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Texas are considering them.

But opponents say those states are muddying an issue that is clear-cut, or should be: State governments should not be granting legal legitimacy to undocumented immigrants.

"Some people in this country just don't seem to grasp the fact that if you're here illegally, you should be deported. In most cases, that should be the proper government response," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group that supports stricter immigration limits and tighter enforcement of immigration laws.

In California, Davis vetoed two bills granting licenses to undocumented immigrants. Then, he reversed course and signed the driver's license measure.

Since then, Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger argued that granting licenses to undocumented immigrants would make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate and blend into American cities and towns. Stein echoed that argument.

"No state should be giving illegal aliens the right to drive in this country," Stein said. "No state should be harboring, encouraging, and providing documentation for a person here illegally to open a bank account, drive a car, get a job or board an airplane. Why do we want to give documentation to people whose identities are unknown? To us it's very straightforward."

Walsh acknowledged that the Massachusetts bill might have to be "tightened up" to earn the support of his committee."We want to make sure the people who go in to get the licenses are who they say they are," he said.

Globe correspondent Brendan McCarthy and staff writer Monica Rhor contributed to this report. Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com

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