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Massachusetts could allow undocumented people to get driver's licenses

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Voters in Massachusetts are about to decide whether undocumented immigrants should be able to apply for driver's licenses. Seventeen other states, along with the District of Columbia, already allow this. New York is one of those states, and Chris Burrell from member station GBH reports how their law is having a big impact on road safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING PAST)

CHRIS BURRELL, BYLINE: Traffic zips past a supermarket in Saugerties, N.Y., a town of 23,000 a couple hours north of New York City. Police Chief Joseph Sinagra says those motorists are a lot safer than just a few years ago. The reason is simple, he says - a huge decline in unlicensed drivers now that undocumented immigrants here can get licenses.

JOSEPH SINAGRA: People aren't running from the police now. They're stopping. And we haven't had a chase around here, to be honest with you, which is really good. It's community safety.

BURRELL: Statewide, police in New York used to arrest about 57,000 people a year for unlicensed driving. Two years after lawmakers passed the Green Light law, arrests plummeted to about 30,000. Police like Sinagra say most of those unlicensed drivers are long-time residents, not recent immigrants. And that decline in arresting unlicensed drivers translates into better policing, he says.

SINAGRA: My officers now are spending more time on the street. They're spending less time detaining individuals.

BURRELL: It's also changed immigrants' everyday lives.

ALICIA RIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BURRELL: In a small town near Albany, Alicia Rios is stepping into her white Toyota Camry. She and her husband have raised three children here and run a landscaping company, with many of their clients an hour away. She takes me for a spin past her daughter's high school and local apple orchards while an interpreter rides up front.

RIOS: (Through interpreter) And now we feel more free, being able to drive. So I'm really happy. So it has helped me go to work, pick up my children, run errands at the store.

BURRELL: In a city not far away, Dalila Yeend pulls up to her house in a black SUV. Four years ago, she was arrested after rolling through a stop sign. An unauthorized immigrant at the time, Yeend didn't have a valid license. She spent the next three months in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility four hours away from her home and two kids.

DALILA YEEND: What happened to me, I just was like, I don't want this to happen to anyone else. Just from a simple traffic stop, our whole lives were changed in the blink of an eye, and it was a scary time.

BURRELL: Now, armed with a driver's license for the last three years, she says she was able to start a home health care business and afford her own home. The law reform in New York that helped Yeend and Rios get licenses is about to happen in Massachusetts next summer. But an effort to stop the law from getting implemented got underway just days after Massachusetts lawmakers passed the law. A petition drive, led by Republicans, put a referendum on the November ballot. Backers like Paul Craney at the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance argue it's common sense to voters that ICE is the right agency to deal with undocumented immigrants, not states.

PAUL CRANEY: And it's not because they're a xenophobe or racist. We can't ask the Registry of Motor Vehicle to do the work that our federal government is supposed to be doing.

BURRELL: Polling data in Massachusetts shows 56% of registered voters want immigrants who can provide valid identification to be able to get a driver's license. Labor unions and a large car insurance company are the biggest donors to the effort to save this law from repeal, building a $1.2 million campaign fund.

SARAH O'CONNOR: I think that we can hit 400 doors today.

BURRELL: Immigrant rights advocates like Sarah O'Connor, rallying canvassers last week in Lynn, a multiracial city just north of Boston, say losing this campaign for immigrants' access to driver's licenses would have a chilling effect for years.

O'CONNOR: There would probably be no real reform in the Massachusetts state level on immigration for the next decade.

BURRELL: Immigration advocates also say that repealing the driver's license law in Massachusetts would reverberate nationally, hurting the momentum of states trying to help undocumented immigrants living and working in their communities for decades.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Burrell in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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