Drivers’ Licenses and Immigration Status

Update, June 10, 2022: This legislation was finally approved over the Governor’s veto yesterday. Here is a video discussion of the legislation (recorded on June 13, 2022).

Current law provides that “No [driver’s] license of any type may be issued to any person who does not have lawful presence in the United States.

A bill currently before the senate would change that sentence to read: “An applicant for a [driver’s] license . . . who does not provide proof of lawful presence, . . . , shall be eligible . . . if the applicant meets all other qualifications for licensure and provides satisfactory proof to the registrar of their identity, date of birth and Massachusetts residency.”

In other words, the bill would give licenses to people who cannot prove lawful presence in the United States, provided they can prove their residence and identity and pass the same tests that everyone else has to pass. I have supported this change publicly since 2014 and I look forward to voting for the bill.

My fundamental view about immigration policy is that it is up to the federal government. It is not the concern of state and local government. However, one of the top concerns of state and local government is to assure that all drivers know the rules of the road and how to operate a vehicle safely. It is often necessary to drive and we are all safer if more of the people on our roads have the required training and insurance.

Some argue that to discourage illegal immigration, we should make life in Massachusetts as inconvenient and uncomfortable as possible for people without lawful immigrant status. I do not agree with that approach. We hurt ourselves when we isolate people in our midst. We benefit from immigrant labor in many occupations and we should treat all workers as well as we can.

Others express the valid concern that a driver’s license is an identification card and we do not want to facilitate the creation of false credentials. The bill gives this concern careful attention in two different ways.

First, the bill does not allow persons who cannot prove lawful presence to get a “Real-ID” which would get them into federal buildings and on to planes. Instead, they will get a card that is valid as a license to drive but is not valid for federal identification.

Second, applicants for a license who do not possess United States identity credentials like a U.S. passport will have to provide similarly rigorous foreign credentials — a foreign passport or an identity card issued by their consulate. In addition, they will have to provide a corroborating document like a license from another state or a birth certificate. At least one of the proferred documents must be a photo ID and at least one must include birth date.

Some have expressed the concern that since one can register to vote through the drivers license application process, the new law would allow non-citizens to vote. Again, the law specifically speaks to this, requiring the Registry of Motor Vehicles to “establish procedures . . . to ensure that an applicant for a Massachusetts license . . . who does not provide proof of lawful presence shall not be automatically registered to vote.” The law would not take effect for a year, allowing time to assure that these procedures are in place.

While the new law cements the requirement of procedures to protect the voter rolls, procedures are already in place according to the Secretary of State. He states on his website that “The RMV . . . collect[s] information about lawful presence in the United States and they will not submit names to local election officials of any persons they have determined are not U.S. citizens.” This is not a new concern. Currently many people who are not citizens but are lawfully present in the United States have drivers licenses: for example, a green card holder can get a license.

Similar legislation has been passed in 16 other states. The bill has the support of many law enforcement officers, including the Sheriffs of Middlesex County and Suffolk County, and the police chiefs of Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has already voted for this bill by 120-36. I expect the Senate to take it up and I hope we are able to give it a similar strong endorsement and send it to the Governor’s desk.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

Join the Conversation


  1. I do not have a problem with the concept. I agree that we should TEST ALL PEOPLE WHO WANT TO DRIVE IN MASSACHUSETTS.

    BUT……This “Driver ID” must be a “brand new formatted issued state ID” indicating that the person has passed the drivers’ certification requirements in order to drive a vehicle in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

    It CANNOT be an actual ( OR IDENTICAL )Massachusetts Driver’s License that is currently issued to Massachusetts residents who are actually citizens of the US.

    I do not see where it is a “newly designed” MA driver ID

    1. I totally agree – a person from England might not be able to pass the test and if not they should not be driving regardless of their status. I have issues with it being used as an ID and feel the lettering or background should be a different color – making it very clear it is not an ID . Sadly when I first obtained my drivers permit I had to show real proof of who I was then only to go down the road 40 years to have to do it again because employees at the RMV were handing them out like candy – just give me $500 and here is your license

  2. I do believe that there will be some illegal immigrants who could make use of a drivers license to bolster their standing to work and then apply for citizenship, like David A points out above. But I do worry about some of the issues pointed out here:
    —will these drivers need to speak English (so they can read the signs, addresses, etc?
    —will Absconding back to their original country be a problem if they are responsible for an accident?
    —you Are correct that immigration law needs to be done on the Federal level, but it’s not looking like anything will get done there ever again.
    —would Like to know how the insurance will work in these cases
    —what actually will be the requirements here?

  3. I oppose this bill and assume you are ‘new speaking’ and actually mean illegal aliens (who are NOT immigrants). Immigrants have no problem getting driver’s licenses. Illegals will submit stolen identities and false documents. Getting a single piece of identity such as a driver’s license opens the door to many other forms of identification. And contrary to your statement that illegal immigration is not the concern of state and local governments you have an obligation to me as my elected official to protect voting, employment, educational, health, and housing benefits intended for citizens, residents, and immigrants (in real speak meaning not illegals). Think beyond the sound bite Mr. Senator. You are opening a door to many other forms of dishonesty and abuse plus passing the responsibility of proper enforcement onto other agencies.

  4. I fully support this legislation only if some accountability can be added. I would like to see some kind of sponsorship program as a condition of passage. The people who support illegal immigration and are vocal proponents should walk the walk. They should open up their homes and house them, feed them, educate them, and take responsibility for any illegal activity that results in negative economic or societal outcomes. We can have the RMV coordinate a pairing program to match incoming illegal immigrants with host families.

  5. And speaking of morality, most public officials don’t document their bribe-taking, but Attorney General Maura Healey and AsG of a small number of states have put their pen to this perversion of justice. If you know our AG, or people in the affected states, please ask them to beg out of being the Sacklers’ benefactor. The Sacklers’ crime was firsrt a greed that led to mass manslaughter, but with time, knowledge their crime can only be considered mass murder. I want our nation’s AsG to FIGHT and nor roll over. They should FIGHT to put the Sacklers behind bars AND FIGHT for damage exceeding the infamous settlement.

  6. WHY DOES…”Current law provides that “No [driver’s] license of any type may be issued to any person who does not have lawful presence in the United States.“ ???” THERE MUST BE A REASON WHY THE LAW EXISTS IN ITS CURRENT FORM.

  7. Maybe it’s ok to give drivers’ licenses to those those who are not legal residents to shop, go to work, take kids to school, but it’s not ok for them to vote. A drivers’ license is a privilege, not a right. None citizens have no right to vote.
    Massachusetts have an automatic right to vote when a drivers’ is issued unless the driver opts out. The registry is supposed to follow up to make sure the driver is eligible to vote.
    An amendment in the Senate to allow the RMV to communicate directly about driver eligibility with voter registration offices in our cities and towns was voted down.
    The drivers’ licenses issued to non legal residents will look just like the legal resident ones.
    I wonder if the 16 states that allow this license indicate that the holder is not eligible to vote.
    This is a bad idea without voter integrity safeguards.

  8. I agree with your assessment Will. I think it is on the employer of the workers to ensure that the workers can work here, and workers having a driver’s license doesn’t change that burden. If one really wants to stop illegal entry into this country then stop hiring or contracting the workers. However, in Massachusetts, the majority of illegal entry occurs when Europeans overstay their visas, and that is why all this concern over illegal entry is bogus.

  9. We should all be safer on the roads thanks to this legislation. Access to auto insurance is definitely the devil in the details we need to hear more about.

  10. I have always been fine with requiring everyone who drives on our roads have driver’s license. On the other hand, I respect Charlie Baker very much. Do not like the idea of doing anything he would veto.

  11. I agree with Will’s thoughtful analysis. The lack of a driver’s license isn’t going to make an illegal resident suddenly go home. When someone is here from another country, it is a huge and life changing decision for them, and whether they can get a driver’s license is not going to be a factor in that decision. But if they end up driving without proper training and licensure, they would be a hazard to the safety of everyone. If they don’t have an ID, it simply drives them more underground, into behaviors and subcultures that are less safe for everyone. Having a valid license would at least make sure they are engaging with society in a safer manner, but lack of one would not be a deterrent to being here.

  12. Will: What of the street bikers that seem to roll through Beacon, Boylston and Mass Ave at least once every two days? I’m not sure they’re immigrants. I’m not sure they have licenses at all. The bikes don’t have license plates or inspection stickers. But that doesn’t seem to stop them from driving on the wrong side of the street or generally doing whatever they like.

  13. I completely agree with the plan to grant immigrants driver’s licenses irrespective of federal immigration status. Thanks for you work on this.

  14. Hi Will,
    Thank you for pushing this bill along and getting it into law. As you write, it provides protection for everyone. A helper of mine
    just had her car rear-ended by someone undocumented with no insurance. That experience incited her to some xenophobic remarks about “those people” shouldn’t be here unless they proceed through legal channels.
    I may have mentioned before to you that I also support giving local voting rights to green card holders. I read somewhere that in the past, such people were allowed to vote. That would promote integration into society.
    And I also support lowering the voting age to 16, and bringing back civics classes so kids would be encouraged to vote!
    Warm regards,

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