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Massachusetts Aims to Close Driver’s License Data Loopholes

Data privacy advocates are pushing for a bill that would tighten restrictions on federal agencies’ access to personal information from driver’s licenses that could lead to civil immigration arrests.

(TNS) — Some of the 16 states with laws allowing immigrants without legal status to obtain driver’s licenses promised to block federal agencies from getting ahold of those drivers’ personal information — only to learn the federal government gained access anyway.

Now advocates and lawmakers pushing for a similar driving bill in Massachusetts are refining the proposal in hopes of avoiding those loopholes, which led to civil immigration arrests in other states.

“With the new version that we’re still working on, you can disclose the data for criminal justice purposes, but not for immigration purposes,” said Laura Rotolo, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “That’s what New York and New Jersey have done.”

The proposal, H.3456/S.2289, would allow immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, regardless of legal status, as long as they submit certain documents to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The bills have stalled in the Legislature in previous sessions, even when Democrats controlled both the Legislature and the executive branch.

The bills often spark heated debates over immigration policy but have gained support in recent years from religious leaders, civil rights activists and elected officials.

Eight district attorneys backed the bill, including most recently Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni and Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi endorsed the legislation, bringing the total number of sheriffs supporting the bill to seven.

The biggest barrier to passing the driver’s license bill is Gov. Charlie Baker.

The Republican governor killed efforts to pass a similar proposal during budget negotiations in 2016. Asked about his stance on the bill this week, Baker said, “my biggest concern from the beginning of that is, how do you do it in such a way so that it actually is, in fact validatable?”

Massachusetts is believed to be home to some 215,000 immigrants without legal status, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Thousands more in Massachusetts have temporary permission to live in the U.S. They can obtain driver’s licenses, but federal officials could end their protections at any time.

That’s the risk for recipients of recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a designation created under President Barack Obama.

David Andrade, who left El Salvador with his roughly 15 years ago, said he has a driver’s license and jobs in the Greater Boston area solely because of DACA. The designation offers a work permit and protections from deportation for two years at a time.

But the 23-year-old’s immigration status felt less secure as the Trump administration tried to end DACA.

“All my friends always ask why I’m not a citizen. If I’d ever had a chance to become a citizen, if there was ever a path to citizenship, I would have been taking it,” said Andrade, noting that “Dreamers” like him have no path to citizenship through DACA. “It’s just very hard, and it’s very expensive.”

For those entirely without status, Andrade said he sees the expanded driver’s license law as a way to measure how undocumented immigrants respond when they can legally apply for driving privileges.

“Just give them a chance. You don’t know what’s going to happen if you don’t give them a chance,” he said. “This would be a first step to actually doing something correctly.”

A MassBudget report from March 2020 suggested expanded driving privileges would help 41,000 and 78,000 people to get a standard license in the first three years, though those estimates might look different post-pandemic.

The bill currently bars the RMV from sharing personal records that aren’t already required to be disclosed under state or federal law unless there’s a judicial warrant.

But reports over the past two years have exposed loopholes where Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been able to obtain driver information. In Colorado, the advocacy group Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition said it obtained emails through a public records request showing the Department of Motor Vehicles shared information with ICE agents to surveil foreign-born drivers.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot about how ICE works and goes after immigrants in the last couple of years since we initially filed this bill,” said Rep. Christine Barber, a Cambridge Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill with Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield. “I think we were able to make this Massachusetts bill a better bill in applying some of what we learned to try to protect the data as much as we can at the state level.”

Limiting data sharing to driver information being used to “criminal justice purposes” and prohibit it for “immigration purposes” would prevent the data from being shared directly with ICE or even shared “downstream” with ICE through a local agency that was able to get access to the data, Rotolo said. The language also aims to avoid adding barriers for local police agencies and insurance companies that routinely use driver information for criminal investigations or paperwork.

“We really wanted to respond to concerns on both sides, those from law enforcement who feel like they need to have some level of access to data,” Farley-Bouvier said, without creating an “open door or a roadmap for ICE.”

Neither Senate President Karen Spilka nor House Speaker Ron Mariano said they would reject the driver’s license bill, but they have stopped short of explicitly backing the proposal.

“I support the idea behind the Work and Family Mobility Act because individuals and families deserve to feel safe, and drivers licenses for all qualified state residents is good for our economy and public safety,” Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday. “As the granddaughter of immigrants and a long-time supporter of this measure, I look forward to hearing more from my colleagues and the public on this matter.”

Mariano asked Straus to schedule an early hearing on the matter, a spokesperson said. The speaker’s office reiterated a statement it sent the Boston Globe editorial board in March.

“As the former chair of the Financial Services Committee, with experience working on auto insurance legislation, I recognize the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing and insurance structures,” the statement reads. “As we enter a new session, I look forward to getting a sense from the House Membership on this issue and related bills as they move through the legislative process.”

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