Lawmakers send Real ID bill to Baker, agree to his license amendment

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STATE HOUSE — Legislation bringing Massachusetts into compliance with the federal Real ID law made its way to the governor’s desk on Saturday after heated discussions over whether people who are not lawfully present in the country should be eligible for driver’s licenses.

Amendments to the fiscal 2017 budget, approved by both branches of the Legislature, prompted questions over whether language intended to comply with the new federal standards would open a door for undocumented immigrants to get Massachusetts driver’s licenses.

Gov. Charlie Baker sent the Real ID budget section back to lawmakers with his own amendments, asserting that one section did not “clearly reference” the requirement of lawful presence “for the issuance of any Massachusetts license or identification card.”

The House on Tuesday and the Senate on Saturday approved Baker’s language, shipping the initiative back to the governor’s desk as a new bill (H 4488), but not before some senators raised concerns over potential consequences.

“This additional measure, to seek additional levels of documentation in order to access a driver’s license or an ID in Massachusetts, is going to do virtually nothing to filter out immigrants of various statuses from receiving an ID here in Massachusetts, but who this measure is really going to hurt and really going to impede are those who have no documentation,” Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said before the vote. “The elderly, folks who have never before had a driver’s license in Massachusetts, their lifestyle has not required it and they choose not to have it.”

The Real ID Act, a federal post-2001 anti-terrorism initiative, requires states to begin issuing secure and compliant forms of identification that for many residents will replace their current driver’s licenses. The new licenses would require an applicant to show proof of citizenship or lawful status in the country.

In October, Baker filed a bill (H 3814) that would put Massachusetts on track to issue Real ID-compliant licenses by 2020.

The House in April tacked on to its fiscal 2017 budget an amendment bringing the state into compliance with the federal law.

The Senate followed suit the next month, though its amendment required a two-tiered system of licensing that would allow people who could not or did not want to supply extra documentation to receive the current version of a driver’s license rather than a Real ID-compliant one. Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, dubbed the lower tier a “Massachusetts-only” license and said applicants would still need to meet the existing eligibility requirements to receive one.

The Legislature’s final budget, produced from the House and Senate versions by a six-member conference committee, included the Senate’s Real ID language.

House Republicans then voiced concerns that the language would grant the registrar of motor vehicles broad discretion in granting licenses, potentially allowing issuance to people in the country illegally. Baker announced his plans to amend the section after Senate Republicans wrote him a letter encouraging him to “reject any language that could possibly result in driver’s licenses or permits, or identification cards, to those not lawfully present in the United States.”

“As a result of confusion and misinformation that the budget language would allow undocumented individuals to obtain driver’s’ licenses in Massachusetts, the governor’s amendment clarifies and reiterates a fact that we already understood when we adopted the two-tier licensing structure,” McGee said Saturday. “Namely, that a Massachusetts resident must be here lawfully in order to be eligible to apply for either a Real ID compliant license or a regular Massachusetts license.”

Baker’s amendment added a line saying, “No license of any type may be issued to any person who does not have lawful presence in the United States.”

On Saturday, Tarr summed up the earlier Real ID debate as showing “that it is not the intent of this body to authorize licenses for those who are not in this country under color of law.”

“If that is in fact the case, then we ought to make that statement and we ought to make it forcefully, and this amendment as presented to us allows us to do that,” Tarr said.

The Senate ultimately cast a voice vote in favor of moving the Real ID bill to Baker’s desk. The House did the same four days earlier, without discussion. Both branches attached an emergency preamble so that the bill’s provisions would take effect immediately after Baker’s signature.

Calling Baker’s amendment “completely unnecessary,” Sen. Jamie Eldridge said he hoped the Legislature would return to the question of whether undocumented immigrants should be eligible for licenses, which he supports.

“For me, the discussion around providing licenses to undocumented immigrants is about public safety,” the Acton Democrat said during floor debate. “It’s a recognition that there are immigrants in this state who are driving to work, driving their kids to the hospital, to school, and that I personally feel they do deserve the opportunity to earn a driver’s license.”

Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier and Sen. Patricia Jehlen filed a bill (H 2985) in January 2015 seeking to allow Massachusetts residents to obtain driver’s licenses without providing a Social Security number or proof of immigration status. After reviewing the legislation for about seven months, the Transportation Committee did not report out the bill by an extended May 16 deadline. Under the Legislature’s joint rules, bills that are not reported out of committee before their deadline receive an automatic recommendation of “ought not to pass.”

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service