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Western Mass. law enforcement leaders urge voters to OK licenses for undocumented immigrants

Several western Massachusetts law enforcement leaders are calling on residents to vote "yes" on ballot Question 4. That would preserve a new law, set to take effect next year, allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver's licenses.

At a press conference Tuesday in Northampton, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the law will make roads safer by holding all drivers accountable.

"I know in other states (with similar laws) there's been significant reductions in hit-and-run accidents because people stay around, they show their license and they're not afraid about being deported," Sullivan said.

Several police chiefs pointed out that immigrants work and go to school in the community, so they simply need to drive.

"The immigration status of these persons make them no less a member of our ... community," South Hadley Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen said. "Undocumented children are members of our schools attending schools. Their parents are working within our community, filling a role in much a much-depleted workforce."

She added that handling cases of unlicensed drivers creates unnecessary diversion and cost for the police department.

Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane, another supporter of licensing undocumented residents, disagreed with opponents of the law who say it could give additional rights to undocumented immigrants — beyond licenses.

"The law is not an immigration bill. It will not change the dynamics," Cahillane said.

The gathering was sponsored by the union, SEIU1199. One union member who attended, Paulena Bergeron, is a personal care attendant from Springfield.

"If we give them driver's licenses ... they can register and insure their cars," said Bergeron. "And if they get into any accidents, everybody's covered. They're going to drive anyway, so we might as well let them be legal."

Among those urging a "no" vote on Question 4 is Massachusetts state Rep. Steve Xiarhos of Cape Cod, who is a former police officer.

While he agreed that giving more people driving tests might make the roads safer, he said he's more concerned about fraud.

"Someone can go to the registry of motor vehicles, show them documents, they could be fake," said Xiarhos. "And now that person ends up with a Massachusetts driver's license."

But Xiarhos acknowledged that anyone can present fake documents — not just undocumented immigrants.

He said he knows a number of police chiefs support the new licensing law, "but there's hundreds of other chiefs and I really hate to see it become political."

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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