BOSTON – Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts could stay in the United States under President Barack Obama’s recent executive order, but whether they will qualify for state benefits and services is unclear.  

Obama’s action will prevent the deportation of more than 4 million immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens or have legal permanent status, provided that they pass a criminal background check and have lived here at least five years. 

Whether they may legally drive a car, pay in-state tuition for college or obtain health insurance will largely be left to states where a patchwork of immigration laws range from the restrictive, as in Arizona and Nevada, to accommodating, in Utah and California. 

In Massachusetts, outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick has granted driver’s licenses and lower college tuition rates to undocumented workers who qualified for legal status under an earlier federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which prohibits the deportation of those brought to the country as children.

Still, implementing the president’s new executive order – if it survives legal and political challenges – will fall to the state’s next chief executive, Republican Charlie Baker, who takes office in January.

Signaling a possible fight over the driver’s license issue, Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said the governor-elect opposes licenses for non-citizens and wants to implement the federal “Real ID” program, which requires states to verify citizenship, use facial recognition technology and update other security standards when issuing licenses.  

Massachusetts is one of nine states that has not fully complied with the 2005 federal law, and Baker has criticized the Patrick administration for defying the feds, even though the state has received a temporary waiver. 

Buckley said Baker has long supported federal immigration reform “to protect the border and keep families together” and would support in-state tuition rates for immigrants living here legally. 

“As the transition process continues, the governor-elect is gathering information about the number of people potentially affected in order to determine next steps on in-state tuition and drivers' licenses,” he said.

An estimated 150,000 undocumented immigrants live in the Bay State. Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, estimates about 65,000 of them will be eligible for special work permits under Obama’s order.

Immigrant rights groups argue that those granted legal status will pay taxes and should be eligible for benefits and services, similar to immigrants with permanent legal status. 

Millona said she believes those who receive legal status will be eligible for drivers’ licenses and reduced tuition for state universities – similar to the previous wave of young immigrants who were granted status under the Deferred Action program. 

“We believe it’s a no-brainer that if you get immigration status and a Social Security number, even though temporary, they should be eligible for a drivers’ license and other state benefits,” she said. “At least, that’s our view.” 

Amanda Richards, a spokeswoman for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, said the agency is awaiting guidance from the federal government about the president’s order but couldn’t say how the state would respond.

Legislation that would have given undocumented immigrants the right to apply for driver’s licenses has been introduced four times in the past decades – including in the most recent session – but failed to gain support.

Another issue that must be addressed is healthcare access. Obama’s recent order prevents immigrants who came to the country illegally from qualifying for federal benefits, but immigration groups and lawmakers in some states are lobbying to enroll immigrants under local versions of the Medicaid program.

Massachusetts provides emergency services to undocumented immigrants under its Medicaid program, MassHealth Limited, but doesn’t allow them other state-subsidized coverage. 

Milllona said the state needs to come up with guidelines to provide healthcare access to those who can’t afford insurance and whose employers aren’t required to provide them with coverage. 

Rep. Jim Lyons, an Andover Republican, said he opposes giving undocumented immigrants access to state benefits. He says the state faces budget deficits and can’t afford to expend already strained resources. 

“We have to put eligibility requirements in place to protect the citizens of the commonwealth,” Lyons said. 

The president’s executive order faces major hurdles. This week a coalition of 17 states – including South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Mississippi and Utah – sued the Obama administration, saying it acted illegally when it issued the executive immigration action. 

The GOP-controlled House of Representatives is expected to vote next week to essentially cut funding for agencies that would spend money to execute the immigration order. 

Regardless, immigration advocates are optimistic that the order will survive and that Massachusetts will be better suited than other states to accommodate those who will receive legal status. 

“Massachusetts has always been a welcoming state for immigrants,” Milllona said. “Many of these people are parents whose children are citizens and who have been here for years working and paying taxes. This is a way of legalizing the whole process. But the most important thing is they won’t be living in fear of being deported.” 

 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at cwade@cnhi.com

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