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Tuition, driver’s licenses urged for illegal immigrants

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

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Governor Deval Patrick today will unveil a state-commissioned report that urges him to push for driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, as well as English classes for foreign-born Massachusetts residents who need them.

The issues were the top concerns raised by immigrants across the state during a series of public meetings the governor ordered from 2008 through early this year.

Now they are among 131 recommendations in the “New Americans Agenda,’’ billed as the state’s most comprehensive blueprint for integrating immigrants into Massachusetts.

It is unclear whether Patrick will embrace the recommendations, which he has declined to release since he received them in July. He will refer the list to his Cabinet for an action plan within 90 days, said his spokesman Kyle Sullivan.

The majority of the 912,310 immigrants in Massachusetts are here legally; almost half are naturalized US citizens and other legal residents are waiting in line. But the authors of the report also urged Patrick to press federal officials to create a path to legal residency for immigrants here illegally, saying the harsh national debate casts a pall over all immigrants.

“We need to get past the rhetoric of hate that has dominated this debate and instead strive for policy choices that are in the best long-term interests of our nation,’’ Westy Egmont and Eva Millona, cochairmen of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants, which authored the report, wrote in a letter to Patrick.

“As governor of Massachusetts, you are in a position to help influence the debate in Washington in favor of true reform that benefits the Commonwealth and the country.’’

The recommendations were submitted to the governor a year after he commissioned a panel of state officials and advocates to find better ways to integrate immigrants into Massachusetts.

The panel held six statewide hearings from Chelsea to Springfield through early this year, talked to 1,200 people, and spent $260,000 in private funding to complete the report.

Patrick has had a mixed record on immigrants, who make up 14 percent of the state’s population. The governor is viewed as an ally, but he has disappointed many immigrants by not lobbying hard for in-state tuition for undocumented students at state colleges and universities.

Patrick has long said he would sign a bill if lawmakers passed it, but advocates said they do not yet have the votes.

Legislative hearings are expected in 2010, an election year, which makes its chances even more uncertain. The measure last failed in the state House in 2006.

“I think it’s a very difficult political environment right now, but I don’t want to prejudge the process,’’ said Representative David Torrisi, cochairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, who voted in favor of the bill in 2006.

Opponents of granting the lower tuition rates say illegal immigrants should not enjoy the same benefits as legal residents.

Driver’s licenses also face difficult prospects. Allowing illegal immigrants to obtain them would require the repeal of the federal Real ID Act first, the report said.

Even expanding English classes faces barriers because the state has no new money to finance them. About 17,000 people are waiting for classes statewide.

Jessica Vaughan, policy director of the Center for Immigration Studies, urged the governor to focus his efforts on legal immigrants exclusively.

“Legal immigrants and illegal immigrants are competing for jobs,’’ she said. “One of the best things for legal immigrants would be to drastically reduce illegal immigration.’’

Yesterday, Patrick’s spokesman made clear that he would not focus on one or two issues in the report.

“In order for the report to have meaning and lasting impact, it needs to be understood in the context of the breadth of recommended actions,’’ Sullivan said.

The 131 recommendations attempt to address the needs facing the widely diverse immigrant population in Massachusetts, which is far more varied than in such states as California and Texas. About a quarter hold a master’s degree or higher, while 43 percent of all immigrants cannot speak English very well.

Overall recommendations include making it easier for professionally trained immigrants to transfer their credentials to work in Massachusetts, creating a multilingual guide to public schools for parents, and increasing access to credit for immigrant-run businesses so that they will invest in Massachusetts.

The New Americans Agenda was headed by the Governor’s Advisory Council for Immigrants and Refugees and coordinated by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants, and a host of community groups.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.

REPORT'S KEY
RECOMMENDATIONS

The Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants produced 131 proposals for legal or illegal immigrants, including:

  • Allowing access to driver's licenses, in-state college tuition, and English classes.

  • Facilitating the transfer of professionally trained immigrants' credentials.

  • Creating a multilingual guide to public schools for parents.

  • Improving access to credit for immigrant-run businesses so they will invest in the state.