The state is readying to meet the needs of more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants expected to apply for driver’s licenses in the first six months after a new state law goes into effect next month.
Registrar of Motor Vehicles Colleen Ogilvie told GBH News this week that the state is ramping up preparations for the influx of new clients — as many as 1,700 a day — expected with the roll out of the Work and Family Mobility Act on July 1.
“We have been working the last several months to add staff to our service centers, so that we have frontline staff that can accommodate more appointments,” she said. “The road test staff is about doubled. At the service center, we're adding about 45% more staff.”
The new law allows eligible Massachusetts residents to apply to obtain a standard driver's license, regardless of immigration status, removing a previous state requirement that residents provide proof of immigration status. The law was passed after a contentious two decades of debate in the Legislature.
“Between July and December, we expect that would have the greatest demand. So those increased staffing levels are here to help meet that,” Ogilvie said.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles released a press release Wednesday detailing some of its plans with comments from various state officials, including Gov. Maura Healey.
“The Work and Family Mobility Act is a benefit for public safety, for our economy, and for our immigrant residents who should be able to drive to work, school, or the grocery store without fear,” Healey said in a written statement. “We are grateful to the advocates, legislators and public safety leaders who have worked so hard to get us to this point.”
A huge part of the undertaking is expanding language access in the Registry of Motor Vehicles as a whole. The office has been meeting weekly with a coalition, called Driving Families Forward, to hear from immigration advocates on how to improve services starting next month.
Ogilvie says many new employees are multi-lingual and new phones are being installed in service centers to provide translations. “If we do have a customer that’s non-native English speaking, we can use the phone to call up an interpreter,” she said.
There are 19 states with driver's license laws on the books for undocumented immigrants — Massachusetts was the 17th state to pass one. A GBH News investigation from 2019 found that, in Connecticut, a similar law is credited with a reduction in hit-and-run crashes.
State Rep. Christine Barber, one of the lead sponsors of the law, told GBH News that providing language acccess is key to making the process a success. Barber has participated in many community group sessions with the public to let people know what to anticipate as the law rolls out.
“People are really excited and just grateful that this is finally happening,” she said. “The goal is to get more people insured and licensed on our roads.”
Intererested new drivers will need to make an appointment to come in, state officials said; no walk-ins are available. Starting July 1, appointments can be made at Mass.Gov/myRMV, and the office anticipates those filling up quickly. There is a special informational phone line currently available at 857-368-9362 with messaging about the law in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese, with additional languages added soon. Driver’s license materials will be in 15 languages, permits in 35 and interpreters available in phone and in person in over 100 languages.
The registrar’s office also is cautioning residents to be aware of fraud. Many nonprofits are reporting notary publics are advertising services where they stand in line for immigrants, expedite their applications and charge fees to let them know what documents are required.
But that list is available for free online. “Customers needing credentials should never pay someone for an RMV appointment. There are no special brokers authorized to help you get an appointment or a license," state officials said in a press release. “Make sure that you pay fees only at Mass.Gov/myRMV or in person at an RMV location.”
In advance of July 1, $9.2 million was budgeted for start-up costs for the law in fiscal year 2023, and of that total, $4 million was payroll-related. Hiring will continue in fiscal year 2024. The fiscal year 2024 budget authorizes the RMV to spend $28 million for the new law and is authorized to spend up to $32 million.
“We feel that we have the support we need to be successful,” Ogilvie said.