By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
Our city of Somerville, just like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and this great country, has greatly benefited from the contributions of immigrants who have sought their dreams here—the same dreams that so many sought before them—while becoming valued members of our community. The famed entrepreneurial, innovative and determined spirit that characterizes Somerville was and continues to be fueled by—to cite only a few nationalities—the Irish, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Salvadoran, Haitian, Nepalese, and Brazilian immigrants who chose this city as the place where their dreams could take root and grow. Today, one-third of Somerville residents are foreign born and more than 50 languages are spoken in our community. Somerville doesn’t belong to any one culture, age group, class or ethnicity. The people of our city, our state and our country are united in aspiring for a better life for our children and ourselves.
Unfortunately, because of a broken federal immigration system and a deadlocked Congress, too many immigrants find themselves on the margins of society, in a state of legal limbo and economic uncertainty. We cannot wait for the federal government to act anymore. We need to act now. We need to make sure that our community members are not criminalized because of a broken system. These are our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our relatives and friends. These immigrants are an integral part of our communities and deserve to live as equals, and not have their lives shackled by a system that everyone knows is broken and is crying out for reform.
The proposed Safe Driving Bill sponsored by our state Senator Patricia Jehlen and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield would fix one critical part of this problem by removing immigration status as a barrier to getting a driver’s license—and car insurance. If passed, this bill will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a special driver’s license that would carry all the safety and legal requirements of a standard license. This will benefit everyone. These members of our community who live and work here will be allowed and required to be properly trained, registered and licensed drivers safely sharing our roads as they get to work and live productive lives. Meanwhile the security and safety of all on the road will be better protected.
Like any other driver, those who want the driver’s license made available by this bill must take written and road exams and carry insurance. These are productive members of our community with jobs. This bill allows them to get to and from work safely and legally. It allows our neighbors to get their children to school and doctor’s appointments, and to buy groceries and other daily necessities, all without the fear that anytime they get behind the wheel of the car, their family may be separated and broken up because of our country’s broken immigration system.
Opponents of this legislation will bring up security concerns, but, in fact, this bill increases the security and safety of everyone. It will make sure that those driving are properly trained and licensed, thereby reducing accidents and also helping our first responders identify those involved in accidents. It will increase public safety by freeing police to focus on top safety priorities, rather than becoming mired in time-consuming work currently needed to ascertain an unlicensed person’s identity. By allowing our police and the RMV access to records and legitimate identification for more drivers, it will make it easier for law enforcement officials to identify true public safety threats—those who hold fake licenses, or drive without a license despite a lawful path to obtain a valid license. This is a common sense, pro-public safety approach. Our neighbors shouldn’t have to risk detention just to get to work or school, and our community shouldn’t have to waste resources and decrease safety just because Washington is too gridlocked to fix this.
There are other benefits, too. People who currently have valid Massachusetts driver’s licenses share a disproportionate share of insurance costs, and for those unlucky enough to be in an accident caused by an uninsured driver, that burden can become even more substantial Through this bill, all drivers would have to share in that responsibility, reducing the unfair cost burden on licensed drivers. Massachusetts will also conserve court resources by addressing the black market for fake licenses and support our economy by improving customer access to businesses not easily accessible by foot or public transportation.
Opponents will argue that we are making it practical for undocumented immigrants to live in this country and this state. There is nothing practical about living as an undocumented immigrant, and this law will address only safety and public resource concerns, ensuring more drivers learn the rules of the road and that our neighbors who take the jobs most citizens don’t want will not face detention—on the public dime—for simply commuting. This bill clearly states that these licenses cannot be used for food stamps, welfare benefits or other benefits of citizenship, and that these driver’s licenses provide for driving privileges only to individuals who cannot prove that they are authorized by the federal government to be in the country. These licenses will also be visually distinct from standard driver’s licenses and cannot be used for identification for travel, and must be renewed more often than standard driver’s licenses.
California, New Mexico, Utah, and Illinois are among the eleven states plus the District of Columbia that already have similar legislation on the books. This is about paving the way for others. This is about leading in a time when leadership is necessary here, because we don’t have enough will to lead in Congress. Until those in Washington decide to undertake the reform everyone agrees we need, we should take steps to increase our safety and security while protecting families and productive members our community. We can start by passing this Safe Driving Bill.