Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


Immigrant Drivers Buckle Up for Change in License Law

Undocumented immigrants will be eligible for Massachusetts driver’s licenses come July. Potential licensees and their advocates have been busy preparing.

Fernando León, Bibiana Pineda, and other Berkshire activists rally during the Yes on 4 campaign last year. Provided by Francisco León.

By Aina de Lapparent Álvarez

When Vilma Mejía, of Springfield, drives her two kids to their doctor’s appointments, they voice the fear she carries internally. “Mommy, drive well. Hopefully the police won’t stop us.” 

Aside from the fears many people of color have about police encounters, the danger Mejía faces is much more immediate. If she is pulled over, whether it’s for a broken taillight or going five over the speed limit, she could be arrested, charged and deported back to Guatemala for driving without a license.

Mejía and her husband are immigrants without legal status – commonly referred to as “undocumented” – and could not get a driver’s license under Massachusetts law.

Unavoidable errands like grocery shopping or doctor visits become a harrowing journey for undocumented people. Mejía herself knows two people who were deported after traffic stops. 

But state law iss about to change in July, when the Work and Family Mobility Act (WFMA) will go into effect. This will allow Massachusetts residents to apply for a driver’s license, regardless of immigration status. Massachusetts will be the 20th state to have such a law. The Registry of Motor Vehicles estimates 100,000 people will seek licenses.

The law did not come easily. Even after over ten years of advocacy, the Massachusetts legislature had to override former Governor Charlie Baker’s veto, and residents had to approve it in the midterm election in November after an initiative to repeal the new law made it to the ballot

In the end, the WFMA passed with 53% in favor. Proponents of the law have not sat back content in their victory, though. Activists have been discussing how to implement the new law with the RMV and Governor Maura Healey, and grassroots organizations have been busy spreading the word in a community that can be hard to reach. 


Activists said the RMV and Healy are listening to their concerns and trying to address them. Julia Schlozman, staff attorney at the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), said members of the Driving Families Forward coalition of different advocacy groups around the state have been meeting with the RMV every Friday at the agency’s request. 

Out of this close collaboration, linguistic access improved. The driver’s manual, which previously was only in English and Spanish, has been translated into eight languages. The learner’s permit test, which was already available in Spanish, will be available in 35 languages. There is also a dedicated phone line for translation in six languages. The RMV also promised to hire more bilingual staff and have translators available in person and on the phone. 

The RMV has tentatively promised to keep some locations open after 5 p.m. and on weekends, but has not provided details at time of writing. 

One victory was removing the requirement imposed by former governor Baker, a Social Security denial letter. People would have to go to the Social Security Administration office and ask for proof that they can’t get an SSN. Doing so is still an option to get documentation for a driver’s license, but immigrants may now sign a declaration saying they don’t have an SSN instead.

Mejía said that this was her primary fear preventing her from starting the process. Even though the SSA has no authority to arrest them for being undocumented, immigrants without status try to avoid interacting with government agencies.

Since the SSA is a federal agency, asking for a denial letter could get people who are undocumented entered into a system that could prove dangerous if future presidents or Congresses wished to create a national registry of immigrants without status. 

The Driving Families Forward Coalition was one of the main advocates for this change to be made during negotiations with the government. Schlozman of JALSA said that allowing applicants to self-certify that they do not have an SSN is a standard practice in other states.

“Requiring SSN denial letters would have meant that every potential driver’s license applicant would have had to go in person to an SSA office, wait, and interact with an employee of the federal government — all of which would potentially have had a chilling effect on license applications. It is much easier and less bureaucratic to allow people who have never been issued SSNs just to sign and submit a self-certification,” said Schlozman.

However, the ability to self-certify was added while the outreach process was already underway. Some early advocacy documents distributed by the coalition talk about the need for a denial letter. While the coalition no longer uses these, some are still being distributed within communities. 

Mejía, who was involved in the campaign to get signatures for the new law, wasn’t aware of this update. During a June 26 online webinar hosted by the social media page Hispanos en los Berkshires, attendees asked many questions about having to go to the SSA office. 

Organizing with the consulates in the Berkshires

Undocumented license applicants are also required to have an updated passport or consular identification document. However, many immigrants in the Berkshires don’t have any, and their consulates are over two hours away with appointments available only on weekdays. 

Fernando León, a community organizer based in Adams, said most undocumented people in the Berkshires were Colombian, Ecuadorian or Mexican. León, who is Ecuadorian, reached out to his consulate in New Haven, Conn, and arranged for Memorial Day to be set aside to process requests from Berkshire County residents. Thanks to this organizing, 85 people were able to get their passports.

The passport requirement still pushes licenses out of reach for some.

Some countries like India only renew passports or give consular IDs to their nationals who can prove they have a legal status in the country in which they live. Also, since the United States doesn’t have bilateral relations with Venezuela, it’s very difficult for their nationals to renew their passports.

Outreach, Outreach, Outreach

Javier Luengo-Garrido, an organizing strategist and community advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (and, full disclosure, an advisory board member of The Shoestring), estimates over 1,000 people have attended presentations he has given on the WFMA throughout Western Massachusetts.

He co-lead a recent meeting with León in the Holyoke church Bautista Quechua Nueva Vida. León knew this was an important community space, especially for the Ecuadorian community. 

Jaime Bizha has been the church’s pastor for three years and a member for ten years. Bizha said the previous law affected the community. “There were some very hard years during which people didn’t drive, and that affected the church. We hope that with this new law we can have more people coming,” he said. 

His congregants often asked him about the upcoming law so he welcomed the presentation. However, he admitted that León and Luengo-Garrido were the only people who had reached out offering information.

León said many still don’t know about the new law or its changes. “It’s a lot of personal work of having relationships with the community, to go and talk at the stores, restaurants, with the people who get together to play soccer,” he said, adding that activists need to focus not on traditional media but on social media and community leaders.

Bibiana Pineda, a community activist who lives in Pittsfield, and creator of the Instagram and Facebook page Hispanos en los Berkshires, says she always makes sure she is getting first-hand information. She has held webinars with RMV workers and Luengo-Garrido, and also makes posts clarifying aspects of the new law so they are easy to share. 

Still, Luengo-Garrido said that some license applicants with special cases will need to consult with a lawyer and not just attend a webinar.

Will they pass the test?

It is hard to predict what roadblocks will emerge once the law is in effect. One uncertainty is whether people will pass the test, even with the new language options. The driver’s test might be more costly for undocumented immigrants who may have to take unpaid time off from work to complete it. They also may not be able to afford private lessons, easily over $100/hour, which can make failing and needing to retake the test more likely. 

Mejía said that, while it would be beneficial to take driving classes, she doesn’t think many can afford them. “Us, undocumented people, we mostly work in seasonal agricultural work and we don’t have any jobs for half of the year,” she said.

Foreign drivers must pass a written and road test in Massachusetts, unless they attained their license in Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, South Korea or Taiwan. Drivers from these six countries will be able to simply convert their licenses to a Massachusetts license. 

León says that in Latin America, people drive aggressively, but the driving test requires you to drive defensively. He says he’s in talks with local driving schools and that they want to help, but that summer is already a very busy season for them.   

Regardless of the uncertainties, this law will bring improved safety to the streets and a better quality of life for immigrants.

When asked what WFMA will change in her life, Mejía didn’t mention doctor’s appointments or grocery runs. Instead, she talked about travel. “My life’s going to change so much. I’ll be able to drive without fear. We weren’t able to go to other places like New York or Florida, we’ll be able to travel,” she said. “I’d like to get to know this country. It has a lot of beautiful places.”

Aina de Lapparent Álvarez is a multilingual journalist originally from Barcelona. She currently lives in Western Mass and on @Ainadla. Additional reporting was contributed by Brian Zayatz.

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page.

You May Also Like


As contract negotiations drag on, workers take “work to rule” action By Sarah Robertson [Editor’s note: this piece was co-published with The Montague Reporter.]...


Trader Joe’s attempts to unionize, Senate passes The Work and Family Mobility Act, City Council moves forward with banning brokers’ fees. As many of...

City Council

The new ordinance, if it survives a possible mayoral veto, would limit the number of cannabis retailers allowed in the city at 12, with...


In this series, The Shoestring will explore and remember the impacts of COVID pandemic on different aspects of life in western Mass. To speak...

Copyright © 2022 The Shoestring. Theme by MVP Themes.