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Sununu vetoes bill addressing drivers licenses for immigrants

Heavy traffic on I-95 in North Hampton.
Dan Tuohy
The bill's sponsor says it would’ve only applied to people residing in the country legally.

Some advocates are raising concerns after Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill designed to make it easier for immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.

Senate Bill 501 authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles to administer licenses to people who have been “granted conditional or permanent residence” in the U.S. as well as those with an employment authorization document. The bill only would’ve applied to people residing in the country legally, according to its sponsor, Sen. Donovan Fenton.

The DMV currently administers licenses to those with a work authorization permit or student visa, as long as they meet residency requirements and complete the required driving tests. Permanent residents, green card holders, asylum seekers and refugees can also apply for a license if they have a social security card, proof of residency and a document verifying immigration status, like a work permit or visa.

Fenton said he was trying to condense the current process into one statutory location. But he also wanted to make the law clearer for DMV employees and people seeking a license. He proposed the legislation after a man in his district was unable to obtain a license, despite having a work permit.

“Our local hospital in our area has an overnight janitor, a very difficult job position to hire for,” Fenton said. “They had a gentleman here who was on a work permit who would ride his bicycle through snow storms to get to work.”

But when the bill reached the governor’s desk, Sununu defended the existing policy and said the bill “threatens to create unnecessary confusion in a process that is already working well.” He also noted that the bill used language like “conditional” and “temporary” without defining what it means.

“Given the ongoing and ever-evolving crisis of illegal immigration our country currently

faces, such terms must be especially well-defined,” Sununu wrote. “This bill introduces harmful confusion.”

Tyler Dumont, a spokesperson for the state Department of Safety, echoed the governor’s concerns.

“As stated in the Governor’s veto message, the bill utilizes terms like ‘conditional’ which is not currently used by the DMV or defined within the legislation,” Dumont wrote. “Without defined meaning of these terms, the Department has no standing upon which to make determinations of ‘conditional’ residency.”

Eva Castillo, who leads the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, was disappointed in the veto. She said that when immigrants face obstacles receiving a license, it makes it harder for them to work.

“Transportation is a big need here,” she said. “A lot of people cannot go to their work, they have to look for people to give them rides, pay for somebody to give them a ride, or just try to find something that's closer to their home so they can manage.”

Despite the veto, some advocates say they hope to see New Hampshire expand its licensing eligibility to include undocumented residents, as Massachusetts did last year.

“I lived in Massachusetts for 18 years, and it took more than 30 years for them to talk about this and get it finally approved,” said Aloisio Costa, a pastor at Assembly of God Bethel Church, which serves many Brazilian immigrants in Nashua. “We’re on the path and we need to keep fighting for it.”

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