by Jessica M. Vaughan
Director of Policy Studies
Center for Immigration Studies
BOSTON – In July, a diverse coalition of activists, supported by a core group of GOP lawmakers and alert news media outlets, exposed a stealth effort on the part of Senate Democrats to enable illegal aliens to get driver’s licenses in Massachusetts. This effort ultimately was snuffed out by Gov. Charlie Baker, who took control of the issue by rejecting language that had been inserted into the massive must-pass state budget bill that would have paved the way for this momentous policy change, just in time for a rally on the State House steps that had been planned to protest the language, but which turned into a victory celebration. It was a good week for citizens of the Commonwealth who value the rule of law and homeland security – and also a valuable case study in successful activism.
Advocates for illegal aliens have long sought to convince the legislature to change state law to allow illegal aliens to get driver’s licenses. Licenses are the key to the kingdom for illegal aliens, because they enable them to get jobs, open bank accounts, apply for social services, and shield their illegal presence from law enforcement and others who need to ask for identification.
But Massachusetts is a relatively good-government state, and most lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation, have been loath to degrade the integrity of the Massachusetts license or provide further incentive for illegal aliens to settle here. After all, the state is already struggling to find enough revenue to pay for social services for qualifying citizens and legal immigrants, and the existing population of about 163,000 illegal aliens and their U.S. born children are already costing state taxpayers about $2 billion every year.
In the last couple of sessions, the legislature had declined to move a perennial bill allowing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. But this year, Gov. Baker had asked the legislature to pass a bill upgrading the security of Massachusetts driver’s licenses to bring them into compliance with federal standards. Under his predecessor, Deval Patrick, the state had been given a waiver of compliance, so citizens of the Commonwealth could still access federal buildings and the like, but the waiver was due to expire in October, and without action the Massachusetts license would soon be worthless for federal purposes, including boarding an airplane.
Lesson 1: Watch out for “must-pass” bills, including budget bills. They are prime targets for lawmakers to use to pass things that they otherwise would not want to be caught voting for as a standalone measure.
Baker had filed a bill to upgrade the licenses to federal standards, including a provision explicitly affirming the prohibition on licenses for illegal aliens, but the legislature did not pass it. Toward the end of the session, minority leader Brad Jones filed the governor’s language as an amendment to the budget, which was allowed, and it passed the House. In addition to upgrading the security of the license in several ways, including having the license expire at the same time as a temporary visa, the measure also closed the so-called “X-number” loophole that has allowed tens of thousands of unlicensed illegal alien drivers to register a vehicle and obtain license plates for cars and trucks that they are not licensed to drive. This has passed before, but Gov. Patrick refused to implement it.
On the Senate side, minority leader Bruce Tarr filed an amendment identical to what the House had passed. But at this point, the co-chair of the Joint Transportation, Democratic Sen. Tom McGee of Lynn, filed substitute language that eliminated the prohibition on licenses for illegal aliens, transferred authority to decide on who gets licenses from the legislature to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles (under the executive branch), and restored the X-number loophole.
The Senate passed the McGee amendment 25-13, with seven Democrats joining six Republicans in opposition. This meant that the two different versions would have to be reconciled by a six-member bi-partisan conference committee.
Lesson 2: Someone needs to read the budget bill (most lawmakers don’t). In Massachusetts, the budget bill is not limited to spending items. Lawmakers can put in anything they want.
Fortunately, intrepid journalist and concerned citizen Lonnie Brennan, publisher of the Boston Broadside, took it upon himself to read the entire bill, in search of mischief. He found it, and passed it along to Ted Tripp, who has been covering immigration issues regularly for the Broadside.
Lesson 3: Call an expert.
Tripp asked me to review the amendment, which I had done for several journalists months ago, when Gov. Baker first filed his license upgrade bill. Immigration matters can be complex, and advocates for illegal aliens often try to conceal what they are doing with confusing and opaque language that never mentions the word “immigrant” or “illegal.” Having reviewed the original language, I recognized that big changes had been made.
Lesson 4: Get the word out through the media, especially media outlets who know you and understand your issue.
Generating discussion on talk radio and tipping off reporters to news stories is the most effective way to focus public attention on an issue. Certain local media outlets have taken an interest in exploring and discussing immigration and how it affects our communities. These include Howie Carr, Michele McPhee, Dan Rea, and Jeff Kuhner, and all of them devoted time to the license issue, especially as an illustration of classic stealth lawmaking. But in this case, the Statehouse News service, which most print and television reporters follow to learn what is happening on Beacon Hill, was the lone mainstream outlet to report on the licensing provision, but failed to catch the differences between the Senate and House versions, and so the other mainstream outlets missed it too. Only the Herald covered it.
Because it’s always better to prevent bad bills from getting to the floor than to have to launch a full-blown campaign to convince a majority to vote against them, a core group of activist groups that have long been involved in the immigration issue in Massachusetts began calling the conferees, asking them to adopt the Baker-House version of the licensing language. Their calls apparently fell on unsympathetic or skeptical ears, as the conferees instead adopted the Senate version, which allowed the licenses for illegal aliens.
The text of the 331-page final version of the budget was released on Wednesday, June29 at about 9:00 pm, with House members expected to debate and give an up-or-down vote on the entire bill the next morning. Most were unaware of the full significance of what they would be voting on.
Lesson 5: Communicate with allied legislators sooner rather than later. Don’t assume they can see what’s coming.
When word spread among the House and Senate GOP caucus, about the license policy change, confusion ensued. The Registrar and Sen. McGee denied that the language would award driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. They were right, technically; the cleverly-worded language merely allowed the Registrar to do it, giving the legislature deniability. A fact sheet circulated by the Registrar, Erin Deveney, pointed out a number of security upgrades in the language, but interestingly did not mention the change.
Three House Republicans – Shaunna O’Connell, Jim Lyons, and Geoff Diehl – all took a principled stand and voted against the entire budget bill because of the license provision, which they considered to be irresponsible and contrary to the will of the voters. Senate Republicans had not quite grasped what had happened and all voted for the bill. O’Connell, Lyons and Diehl took some heat and endured some ridicule from colleagues for listening to “people outside the building,” but the cat was out of the bag.
Lesson 6: Be ready with ample documentation to support your position and circulate it.
O’Connell and her allies began circulating to fellow lawmakers the actual text of the section on licensing in the bill (as opposed to the Registrar’s summary) alongside the Governor’s original language and pointing out the changes made by McGee. Fox 25’s top political reporter, Sharman Sacchetti, picked up on it and began questioning top lawmakers and the governor about the provision, with the stories running over several Fox newscasts. Senate Republicans sent a letter to Gov. Baker asking him to clarify that illegal aliens should not get licenses. Over the Fourth of July weekend, Howie Carr devoted his column to the matter; it had all the classic elements for him – State House skullduggery and the illegal alien welfare industrial complex.
Lesson 7: Join forces with other groups.
Meanwhile, a coalition of activist groups mobilized to train their fire on the governor and demand that he stay true to his campaign position against licenses for illegal aliens and issue a veto. The Northborough, Greater Boston, and Merrimack Valley Tea Party groups and the Massachusetts Coaliation for Immigration Reform, whose members had already been calling the budget conferees, were joined by a few other statewide groups, including town committees and the new Massachusetts Taxpayers Best Ally PAC, which sent out 25,000 emails. Numbers USA, the dominant national pro-borders activist group, alerted its Massachusetts membership. Everybody had a concise message for the governor: Veto the license section, Restore your language to prohibit illegals from getting licenses. The State House switchboard began to light up.
Within days, Herald columnist and radio host Holly Robichaud, working with the MTBA PAC, had organized the protest rally at the State House. The roster of featured speakers was to include Maureen Maloney, of Milford, whose son Matthew Denice was killed by an illegal alien drunk driver, and she planned to bring banners made by the Remembrance Project, memorializing other citizens of the Commonwealth who had lost their lives at the hands of illegal aliens.
By July 7, the day of the rally, Charlie Baker had issued a veto and the substitute language we asked for, to which House Speaker DeLeo quickly agreed, followed by soon after by a somewhat less enthusiastic Senate Leader Stanley Rosenberg, who conceded that he could not hold up the state budget over this issue. The good language was approved. Brad Jones insisted on a roll call vote in the House, and 34 hard core illegal alien supporters in that chamber went on record opposing the final measure, which is now in effect. ♦
by Jessica M. Vaughan