As Massachusetts voters prepare to decide whether unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses, court data from neighboring New York shows a steep decline in unlicensed driving since the state implemented a similar law.

Police in New York arrested about 57,000 unlicensed drivers a year before state lawmakers narrowly approved the Green Light Law in 2019, making most immigrants eligible for licenses regardless of their legal status. In 2021, those arrests declined to about 30,000 and are on a similar pace for this year, according to records obtained by GBH News from the New York State Unified Court System.

Advocates say the sharp drop in unlicensed driving cases has improved road safety and freed police officers to pursue more serious public safety needs. Among them is Police Chief Joseph Sinagra of Saugerties, N.Y., a town of 23,000 that sits on the Hudson River, 40 miles from the Massachusetts state line.

“My officers now are spending more time on the street ... and less time detaining individuals,” Sinagra told GBH News. “That can take hours, and that’s not fair to our community because there may be legitimate police services that we need to attend to that we’re ignoring because we’re tied up with an individual simply because they couldn't get a driver’s license.”

It’s the latest data in a growing body of evidence from many of the other 17 states with similar laws around driver’s licenses, plus the District of Columbia. Momentum is building in other states to put similar legislation on the books. But Massachusetts advocates are staring down a referendum on the ballot that could override lawmakers — and deal what would likely be a final blow to decades of lobbying to get the law in place.

On Nov. 8, Massachusetts voters are being asked to vote on a similar law in a ballot initiative titled Question 4. The ballot question was created by a group called Fair and Secure Massachusetts, meant to repeal a new state law, known as the Work and Family Mobility Act.

If it’s kept in place, the law is expected to give some 70,000 eligible immigrants the chance to get a driver’s license starting next year. Immigrants without legal status could obtain a driver’s license by submitting two identifications, such as an unexpired foreign passport, a consular ID, birth certificate or marriage certificate.

Opponents of the law — backed by the Mass. GOP — argue that driver's licenses are a privilege that people living in the United States illegally shouldn't have access to. They also argue that the state Registry of Motor Vehicles lacks the expertise to review identification documents from foreign countries. Supporters of the law say it will allow drivers to be “properly vetted for licenses,” but reduce uninsured drivers and hit-and-run crashes.

The law was overwhelmingly approved by the state Legislature in May and then vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker, who said it could undermine election integrity because people who get their licenses can be automatically registered to vote. But advocates of the law say there’s been no evidence of such a problem in other states and point to language in the law that requires the RMV and secretary of state to develop procedures that will prevent non-citizens from being registered.

In June, lawmakers overrode the veto.

Feeling ‘free’ driving in New York

Every state bordering Massachusetts, except New Hampshire, has a similar law. But New York is the most recent border state to implement its statute.

Backers of New York’s Green Light Law estimated more than 250,000 immigrants could apply for driver’s licenses. The most recent data from the state’s motor vehicle department counted an additional 264,000 licensed drivers in the state in 2020 over the previous year, but the agency does not track which licenses were issued to unauthorized immigrants.

Immigrants and their advocates in New York’s Hudson Valley said the change has enabled people to drive legally to their children’s schools, to work and to new jobs farther from home.

Alicia Rios, who is from Mexico and lives in the Hudson Valley south of Albany, says driving legally has changed her life. She and her husband run a landscaping company, and many clients live an hour’s drive past the Massachusetts border. Immigrant friends who obtained licenses have been able to take better-paying jobs in construction and food service 30 minutes away in Albany, she said.

“We feel kind of free being able to drive,” Rios said through an interpreter, as she drove her white Toyota Camry by her child’s high school accompanied by a reporter. “I’m really happy. It has helped me go to work, pick up my children, run errands at the store.”

"Just from a simple traffic stop, our whole lives were changed in the blink of an eye."
Dalila Yeend

Dalila Yeend, of Rensselaer, N.Y., said her new driver’s license meant she could start her own healthcare business, helping people at their homes. Yeend, a single mother with two children, says she was arrested in 2018 after rolling through a stop sign in nearby Troy. An unauthorized immigrant at the time, Yeend said she didn’t have a valid driver’s license. Local police handed her over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and she spent the next three months in an ICE detention facility four hours away from her home.

“What happened to me, I don’t want to happen to anyone else. Just from a simple traffic stop, our whole lives were changed in the blink of an eye,” she said. “[It] definitely caused me to have some PTSD. My kids go to counseling, and it’s going to be a long road to work through all the damage that was done.”

Sinagra said many others in local law enforcement were skeptical at first, but the reduction in unlicensed driving has been convincing. Roads were more dangerous before lawmakers took action, he said.

“We were putting our communities in jeopardy, particularly those of our motoring community, simply because these individuals did not have a license,’’ he said. “They had to provide for their families. They were obtaining automobiles. They weren’t insured and they were operating them.”

What’s next in Massachusetts?

In Massachusetts, opponents of Question 4 argue that ICE is the right agency to deal with immigration issues, not the state. The right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance hopes voters will repeal the Work and Family Mobility Act.

“I think a majority of Massachusetts voters are against giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. And it’s not because they're xenophobe or racist,” said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the group. “We can’t ask the Registry of Motor Vehicles to do the work that our federal government is supposed to be doing.”

A young woman stands while a small group of 10 to 12 people sit in a semicircle around her, taking instructions. They’re sitting on a lawn in front of a church with peeling paint.
Canvassars gathered in Lynn, Mass., to knock on doors and encourage people to vote “yes” on Ballot Question 4.
Chris Burrell GBH News

This month, 56% of registered voters said they supported keeping the newly approved law on the books while 39% said they would vote to overturn it, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll. It showed a jump in support from last month, when just 49% of voters said they would be voting “yes.”

Craney said spending doesn’t always determine the results — but if it did, the campaign to keep the law would win in a landslide. The campaign to repeal the driver’s license law has raised $131,000, compared to the “Yes on 4 for Safer Roads” campaign’s $1.2 million — largely from labor unions and a $200,000 donation from Quincy-based Arbella Insurance, according to the State Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

The campaign is buying TV ads and mailing flyers. Volunteers are calling voters and knocking on doors.

Last Sunday, more than a dozen canvassers sat in the grass outside the First Baptist Church in Lynn.

“I think we can hit 400 doors today. I think this team can do that,” organizer Sarah O’Connor told her volunteers, before they set off in pairs for addresses in Lynn, Marblehead and Salem.

O’Connor, who works for the faith-based Essex County Community Organization, told canvassers the stakes are high. Immigration advocates also say that repealing the driver’s license law in Massachusetts would reverberate nationally, thwarting the momentum in states trying to help unauthorized immigrants living and working in their communities for decades.

“It would be a binding undoing of the law if the ‘no’s were to win on the ballot,” O’Connor said. “That would mean that there would probably be no real reform on the Massachusetts state level and immigration for the next decade.”