Mayra has lived in Newton for more than a decade, after first fleeing her native Mexico, and then later the man she describes as her abusive husband.

But for years, the 37-year-old undocumented immigrant has worried about driving to work as a house cleaner or taking her two children to athletic events, fearing that she might be pulled over by police for not having a license and potentially referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Mayra, who requested to use only her first name due to worry of deportation, says she often is pushed to drive because of distance or cold weather.

“It’s necessary for me to drive. But I was always, always nervous. I’d see a police officer and my body would go crazy, along with my nerves,” she told GBH News recently. “And the kids too, they’d be nervous because they could sense my fear. They’d tell me, ‘Mom, drive carefully.’ ‘Mommy, there’s a police officer.’”

Mayra hopes to soon become a licensed driver in Massachusetts. She is one of more than 100,000 people the state expects to apply for a driver’s license in the next six months after a state law, called the Work and Family Mobility Act, makes learner's permits and driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants in the state. The measure goes into effect on July 1.

A woman with long, wavy brown hair faces to the side as she speaks with someone outside on a sunny day.
Mayra speaks at a June event promoting the new law in Boston.
Photo courtesy of the Driving Families Forward Coalition

Advocates say the law will make roads safer by boosting driver education, increasing the number of insured drivers, and assuage concerns among immigrants like Mayra that a traffic stop could lead to deportation. The legislation passed into law last year and has been the subject of intense planning at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and immigration advocacy organizations since.

“They talk about the fact that they're able to drive their kids to school, that they're able to go to get groceries, that they are able to commute to work without taking two hours to get to a place when there’s not quick access to public transportation,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, a Chelsea-based social services organization. “Sometimes people have to take three buses, the train and now they can literally drive to a place, reducing their commuting time by like an hour.”

Safety on the roads

The Work and Family Mobility Act made its way through Beacon Hill over the course of two decades amidst pushback from opponents and apprehension from some policymakers and law enforcement. Even after the law’s passage, a committee called Fair and Secure Massachusetts succeeded in getting a referendum on the November 2022 ballot to repeal the law, which eventually failed.

Advocates like Vega want the public to know that the law is about safety, not immigration.

“It's not about citizenship,’’ she said, “it's just responsible driving in the world.”

State Rep. Christine Barber, a co-lead sponsor of the law, said local law enforcement has been supportive.

“What we've heard from many of them is that they want to do their work and pulling over someone who may not have a license but is otherwise able to drive is not a good use of their time,” she said. “Getting more people licensed and insured will actually make their jobs easier.”

There are now 19 states that have similar laws for immigrants to obtain a driver’s license without legal status. After passing its law in 2013, Connecticut saw a reduction of hit-and run crashes and a decline in the number of people found guilty of unlicensed driving, according to a 2019 investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting.

But success of these laws is contingent on immigrants overcoming fear of police and deportation threats. Some advocates have questioned how personal information will be stored by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, and whether the registry will share that information with federal authorities.

Colleen Ogilvie, registrar of motor vehicles, has tried to allay those concerns. She told GBH News that the agency abides by the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act, which limits who can view personally identifiable information.

“Our efforts are focused on proving the identity of the individual so we can make a determination of whether or not they qualify for a state government issued driver’s license,” said Ogilvie. “We don’t have a process where we share information with federal immigration officials.”

The Brazilian Worker Center said it was informed by the registry that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can’t access the RMV database directly, and that the RMV doesn’t share copies of identity documents.

State Attorney General Andrea Campbell's office is also working to ensure motorists’ information is protected. The new law tasked Campbell's office with writing regulations governing the circumstances in which the registry can share information about license holders, and those regulations should be available on or before July 1.

How to apply for a license

People can start booking appointments on the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ website beginning on July 1. Walk-in appointments are not available.

To apply for a driver’s license, interested drivers must show two documents proving their date of birth and identity. A lot of the accepted document types are already vetted foreign documents, like an unexpired passport, consular identification document, national identification card or certified copy of a birth certificate.

Proof of residency also will be required.

“Telephone bills are very commonly used, a lease or a mortgage statement, school document and insurance documents,” said Laura Rótolo, field director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which worked on writing the law.

A full list of documents that can be used will be published online ahead of July 1.

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Example of a document outlining what is needed to apply for a driver's license on July 1, translated by nonprofits and state agencies, into Portugeuse.

Applicants will also need to prove they’ve never had a social security number, which can be done by signing an affidavit attesting to that, or providing a letter of denial from the Social Security Administration.

The registry is requiring documents that aren’t in English to be accompanied by an English translation with a certification by a language service provider, accredited bilingual teacher, local consulate, nonprofit, government agency, or others.

At the RMV, applicants will have to pass a learner's permit exam, vision screening and road test, even if they already know how to drive. Applicants will also be required to pay fees for each service: $30 for a learner's permit, $35 for a road test and $50 for a license.

Beware of scams

Members of La Colaborativa, a social service organization based in Chelsea, say they have seen a number of scams advertised in the region. Those false advertisements include people offering to stand in line at the RMV, “expedite” applications, and charge fees to outline what forms of ID are needed to apply for a driver’s license.

“If you go to the website for the registry of motor vehicles, there's step-by-step of what you need to do,’’ said Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa. “There's no need for you to pay equal $75 to translate a document or to know what type of documentation you need, because everything is there already.”

Ogilvie of the registry said the RMV doesn’t charge for documents, and it’s the only entity that can make appointments and issue driver’s licenses.

“We certainly want people to know that we have been seeing things in social media postings regarding the bad actors that are trying to take advantage of people that may not be familiar with the government process in Massachusetts, charging them for appointments, charging them for services that are for free.”

The state attorney general's office released a consumer advisory last week to help people look out for scams.

Preparation and education

Throughout the state, nonprofits and legislators are holding workshops to educate the public about the upcoming law. Members of the Driving Families Forward coalition, comprised of unions, legal, and immigrant rights organizations, have been hosting community events around the state, sometimes with up to 400 people showing up.

Groups like the Brazilian Worker Center, which is certified to translate foreign documents for immigrants, are posting videos on social media about the law, how to apply, and where to find in-person community meetings.

example of social video explainer
The Brazilian Worker Center hosts a Facebook live on what valid foreign documents to use to apply for a driver's license.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles has also been ramping up and improving services, with 1,300 to 1,700 new customers expected daily in the first six months.

Expanding language access at RMV sites has been one key concern. Massachusetts’ foreign-born population is diverse, with no nationality making up even 10% of the total, according to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

To address this, every RMV station will be equipped with a phone that can get an interpreter within a couple of minutes, in over 100 languages. The state also translated documents into 15 languages.

And in terms of staffing, the RMV is doubling its road test staff and nearly doubling service center staff. The registry said many of those new employees are multilingual or will be trained to use multilingual services.

But state officials and immigrant advocates caution that even with all the preparations being made, this process won’t be quick.

“No one should expect to walk into an RMV on July 1st, which is closed — it's a Saturday — and get a license,” said Rótolo. “I think we are just going to have to be a little bit patient and wait for those appointments to open up, wait for the road test appointments to open up.”

Ogilvie said that each day, the registry opens up more appointments on its website, and that will be the case for when the law goes into effect.

Mayra told GBH News she’s planning to be the first in line when appointments open up, and she's been studying for the road test. She’s thrilled about being able to drive her car without fear of being forced out of the country she’s called home since 2006.

“The first license will be mine!” she said smiling in a Zoom interview. “I’m studying books for the driving test. I’m here preparing to pass the test on the first round because I really need that license!”