PITTSFIELD – Getting to and from work, medical appointments or even just grocery shopping without driving is in high demand in Berkshire County.
Berkshire Immigrant Center staff say state laws and a lack of public transportation options force undocumented immigrants to drive without a license or miss basic necessities.
“Here in the Berkshires, there’s really no other option,” said Emma Lezberg, a social worker for the nonprofit Pittsfield. “If you have to go to work, you have to drive.”
While 16 states, including neighboring Connecticut, New York and Vermont, allow all residents to apply for a driver’s license, Massachusetts requires individuals to show proof of a Social Security number to obtain a license.
The Massachusetts House is expected to vote today on a proposal to make Massachusetts the 17th state to allow all drivers to obtain a license. Supporters of the bill, co-authored by State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, believe it will make roads safer by ensuring all drivers are licensed, registered and insured, while improving immigrants’ access to basic services Needs.
“It’s mind-boggling that it’s taken us so long to get to this point,” said Michelle Lopez, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. “It’s another way for us to keep everyone safe…to make sure everyone has insurance, to make sure we’re all covered.”
In states that have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain permits, the number of hit-and-run accidents has gone down and insurance premiums have gone down.
But Governor Charlie Baker has expressed opposition to allowing licenses for undocumented drivers, questioning whether the change would conflict with federal guidelines on real identity and whether undocumented immigrants can verify they “are who they say they are”.
Asked by reporters on Monday, Baker maintained that he supports current laws that require proof of legal presence, although he refrained from threatening a veto.
A revamped version of the Farley-Bouvier bill requires applicants to present a valid, unexpired foreign passport or consular ID, as well as a driver’s license from another state or territory, birth certificate, a foreign national identification card, foreign driver’s license, or Massachusetts marriage certificate or divorce decree.
The bill would allow undocumented immigrants to receive a standard driver’s license, not a Real ID-compliant license.
The Massachusetts House appears set to vote next week on a proposal allowing residents to apply for a driver’s license without having to demonstrate their legal immigration status. State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier first introduced this proposal in 2013.
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said his department shifted its approach to undocumented drivers from law enforcement to education some time ago, in part because operation cases without permits “just weren’t going anywhere” in court.
“It was much easier for us to just ask our community partners to educate the people they were helping,” said Wynn, who supports the Farley-Bouvier bill.
Lezberg said a top priority is making sure undocumented immigrants know their rights. Generally, law enforcement does not ask people about their immigration status, and people always have the right to remain silent.
“We just tell them what to do if the police stop them, knowing that we can’t tell people not to drive,” Lezberg said. “People don’t want to do something they’re not supposed to do, but they don’t really have a choice.”
Behind immigration status, driving is the second biggest concern Lezberg hears from clients, she said.
“I have clients who are definitely concerned about insurance,” Lezberg said. “If you’re uninsured, there’s a lot more worry about what happens if you have an accident, even if it’s something small.”
In a November 2020 Berkshire Immigrant Center survey, 11% of 114 clients who responded said they did not have access to reliable transportation.
“That would mean they live too far from a bus route, or the bus route doesn’t work when they need to get to and from work, or they don’t have a driver’s license or car,” Lopez said.
Respondents to this survey ranked only affordable housing and jobs above transport as the most pressing challenges in Berkshire County.
Even residents with legal status have struggled to renew their driver’s license, Lezberg said. If a document such as a work permit or green card expires at the same time as a driver’s license, backlogs in these systems can force people to wait to renew their license.
An inability to drive not only harms employment, Lopez said, but can also pose a problem during medical emergencies.
“I think people aren’t aware of the number of emergencies that can arise and put your family at risk because you can’t drive legally,” Lopez said.
“What if your child, in the middle of the night, catches something, or a baby who can’t talk? And you don’t live within a certain distance of a hospital, and you’re too financially unstable or don’t have health insurance to pay the ridiculous ambulance charges. How do you bring your child to the hospital? »