Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in Massachusetts are able to get their cars on the road legally thanks to a little-known law that lets Massachusetts drivers register their vehicles even if they don't have drivers' licenses.
It’s a loophole first exposed by FOX Undercover four years ago, but it may be coming to an end as Beacon Hill debates a series of measure aimed at illegal immigrants’ access to state benefits and services.
Part of that effort includes a proposed change in the law to require a driver’s license to register a car. It applies to all drivers, but it’s aimed squarely at the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 illegal immigrants in this state, some of whom are on the road without a license or insurance.
The normally liberal state Senate approved the changes, drawing national attention for passing the measure. Among the changes is a requirement for the state to set up a telephone hotline for people call and report suspected illegal immigrants. But so far the move to require drivers’ licenses to register vehicles has received little attention.
“It's proven to be a bit of a loophole for a lot of illegal aliens who are driving either in an unlicensed fashion or in many instances an uninsured fashion,” said state Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, who has been fighting to close this loophole for years.
“I think it's a public safety issue that, combined with the unlicensed drivers that are on our roads right now, are creating a problem. We've seen a lot of evidence in terms of the numbers of unlicensed drivers we have that are brought in or arrested or detained in the course of the day in many of the communities I represent. It's a significant number,” he said.
It’s certainly a significant number of vehicles that have been registered by people without licenses, nearly 200,000 in all, and, according to Hedlund's office, some 17,000 active registrations.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles disputes that, saying the actual number of active registrations is much lower: 2,716.
Driving without a license is a crime in Massachusetts, but one that the vast majority of people get away with. A recent FOX Undercover investigation found that just 16 percent of people charged with driving without a license are found guilty.
The issue came to a head recently when a suspected illegal immigrant rear-ended a state representative in a serious car crash.
Hedlund admits his measure won’t stop all illegal immigrants from driving, and on that point, immigrant advocate Frank Soults agrees.
“I don't think passing one more law is going to stop them from driving. They need to feed their families. They need to get money. They need to have jobs and they need to drive to those jobs and they're going to do it whether or not this law's in place,” said Soults, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
An earlier fox undercover investigation found plenty of evidence that officials knew about the problem with what’s commonly called X registrations, called so because the vehicle’s RMV identification number begins with the letter “X” when registered by someone without a license.
During one ride-along with a Saugus police officer, FOX Undercover’s camera was rolling as the officer pulled over one car with an X registration.
“The owner of the plate when they registered it did not have a driver's license here in mass. So the registry issued the x-number,” Officer James Scott said in the 2006 interview.
The car's registration was actually revoked, and the insurance cancelled, and in the trunk Scott found another plate tied to an X number. The driver, according to state police, was a Brazilian imigrant who had tried to use a false social security number to try and get a real driver's license.
The registrar at the time, Anne Collins, said the X registrations were something the Registry was going to examine.
“Anything that gives us an indication that there's a loophole or there's a breach in the system, is something we're going to address,” Collins said in the 2006 story.
Since that comment, nothing’s changed. But if the current Senate budget amendment makes it into the legislature's final budget, it will be up to Gov. Deval Patrick to decide whether to veto it or not.
A spokesperson for the governor said in a statement, “(W)e are currently reviewing the language, and will need to see a final version, before making any commitments. However, one concern we do have with a number of the amendment's provisions, including this one, is that it may be over-broad in its effect, and deny services to legal citizens."