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COVID-19 Pandemic Pushes Debate Over Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Workers

By Madelaine D. | Nov 29, 2020

Essential workers kept food supplies moving from farms to supermarkets and took care of the elderly in nursing homes. However, thousands of them are undocumented immigrants who choose to risk driving without a license to keep their jobs.

According to NPR, immigrant communities experience a disproportionately higher number of deaths and job losses as the COVID-19 cases surge.

The debate if undocumented immigrants will be allowed to get driver's licenses heats up in Massachusetts and other states across Midwest and South.

To allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally, D.C. and 15 other states have changed their laws. Some lawmakers on Beacon Hill hope to imitate this law and vote on a bill this session to make it legal.

If the bill passes, 70,000 of the estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts are expected to apply for a driver's license.

Brendan Crighton, a Massachusetts legislator who co-wrote the bill, said many undocumented immigrants, who have been praised and hailed, are essential workers.

Crighton said they are the frontliners who are in grocery stores or "take care of our loved ones in long-term nursing facilities."

"These are the folks on the front lines. How do we reward them? We tell them that they have to break the law to drive," Crighton noted.

A spike of 15 COVID-19 cases was reported earlier this fall in Nantucket, linked to four immigrant workers who shared one vehicle.

The island's health director, Roberto Santamaria, said that Nantucket's economy would halt without its immigrant workforce, and the driver's licenses are somewhat their shield against the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, critics said undocumented immigrants could use driver's licenses to vote illegally, and they don't deserve a privilege like driving.

Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has expressed concern about fraudulent identities, has not budged from his stance.

Last year, Baker said his problem with giving undocumented immigrants licenses was that there are no backup filings that they are who they say they are. But over the five years of allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver's licenses, Connecticut found no fraud cases.

Backers in states like Michigan trying to change the law said that driver's licenses would allow the state's 130,000 undocumented immigrants to access drive-up COVID-19 testing.

Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Massachusetts lawmaker, explained that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses would increase job opportunities in the communities that are hardly hit by the pandemic.

NPR reported that an undocumented immigrant who agreed to use her first name Erica said she only depends on her car for economic survival.

Erica, who lives outside Boston, drives hundreds of miles weekly to clean houses, make meals for schools, volunteer at a food pantry, and take her daughter to school as well as doctor's appointments.

Until the law is changed in Massachusetts and 34 other states, immigrants like Maria and her husband Jose from El Salvador would be left to choose between encounters with police and possible COVID-19 exposure on public transit.

As NPR reported, the couple lives in Massachusetts with the fear of riding buses, so they drive a car. But several times, they have been pulled over by police, one of whom ordered them and their kid to get out of the car alongside the highway.

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