Imagine that you are 16 years old and excited to get your driver’s license alongside your friends, only to be told you cannot obtain one. This is the reality for Jose Antonio Vargas , an undocumented journalist, and for millions of others in the United States. Vargas crafted a support system to bypass the system, but lived in fear every single day that his truth would come out. It is hard enough to be undocumented in the United States without access to many public services and benefits. A driver’s license would expand the economic and social prospects of individuals and families. 

According to the Pew Research Center, there are  250,000 undocumented immigrants  in Massachusetts who are unable to obtain their driver’s licenses.  The Center for American Progress  reports that over 233,000 Massachusetts residents have at least one undocumented family member, and over 88,000 children have at least one undocumented parent. The lack of a driver’s license for undocumented parents ripples into the quality of life for their children including those that are U.S. citizens.

The ability to drive is critical, especially where there is a  lack of reliable and decent public transportation, like in areas outside of Greater Boston. Not only is it empowering to have the option to drive yourself to work, but having a driver’s license is a matter of both economic and racial justice, as well as community health. 

Over 71% of Massachusetts workers over 16 years old drive themselves to work. Shortcomings of the public transportation system in Massachusetts limit where people can go and how fast they can get there. It eats away at the valuable time that could be spent doing other things like grocery shopping, working or spending time with their family. The IZA Institute of Labor Economics  found that undocumented women were able to increase their work availability in states in which  they had access to driver’s licenses. Undocumented residents would be able to spend less time on public transportation, during and after the pandemic, and more time working or with their families if given the opportunity to become licensed drivers.

State driver’s licenses are often the primary form of proving identification. Having the ability to show proof of identification can be taken for granted by American citizens. Routinely, an ID is necessary to make purchases, pick up packages and participate in other interactions in society. According to the Migration Policy Institute, top countries of birth for undocumented residents of Massachusetts are Brazil with 15% of the total undocumented population, followed by El Salvador (12%), Guatemala (8%), China/Hong Kong (8%) and the Dominican Republic (7%). Denying driver’s licenses on the basis of immigration status further marginalizes people of color.

 Research has described how individual, structural and even perceived discrimination against immigrants and their families can lead to deteriorated health outcomes and barriers to accessing care. However, after Utah began issuing driver’s licenses for those without immigration status, “...immigrant mothers who obtained them were better able to get  adequate prenatal care  — possibly because medical providers stigmatized their undocumented status less.”

Having access to a driver’s license would also assist undocumented parents in their efforts to safely complete basic tasks that we take for granted, like picking up their children from school and taking them to doctor’s appointments or little league games. Women like Alicia Lopez , a mother of five, would no longer need to fear being pulled over for driving without a license. Undocumented residents would be able to open a bank account, provide proof of residence for their child’s school and have the autonomy to  engage in their communities.

As a California native, I was shocked to realize that Massachusetts does not have a form of legislation extending driving privileges to undocumented immigrants. 16 states, as well as Puerto Rico and D.C., have already passed laws granting access to driver’s licenses for residents regardless of immigration status. The state of New York, for example, passed the  Green Light Law  expanding the access of non-federal-use driver’s licenses to undocumented residents 16 years and older after years of grassroots organizing. 

Meanwhile, organizers in Massachusetts have struggled for more than a decade to gather sufficient support for the law to pass in the state.

Even Republican-led states have recognized the need for undocumented residents to be able to get driver’s licenses. After Utah and New Mexico allowed undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses,  uninsured driver rates  dropped by 80% and 60% respectively according to MassBudget.

The  Driving Families Forward Coalition  has been leading the way to gain support at the statehouse, and across the Commonwealth, for the Work and Family Mobility Act, the joint   S.2289 and H.3456  bills that would grant access to a driver’s license in Massachusetts regardless of immigration status. Remaining compliant with the REAL ID requirements, the Work and Family Mobility Act would ensure that undocumented residents of Massachusetts can become authorized to drive in the Commonwealth. A legislative hearing  earlier this summer heard the voices of many community members and advocates testifying in support of the bill, but there has been no movement to the floor for a vote.

While immigrants and community advocates await a pathway to citizenship for those that are undocumented, Massachusetts must utilize its authority to extend driver’s licenses to all, regardless of immigration status. It is a matter of economic and racial justice, as well as family and community health. An important milestone in life should be attained by all, not just a select few.