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Patrick promises immigrant-friendly reforms in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), who won re-election earlier this month, announced yesterday that he hopes to use his next four years in office to pass a number of immigration reform measures, including driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and in-state tuition for undocumented students who attended high school in the state.

In total, he promised to implement 131 recommendations that were made in an administrative report last year on how legal and illegal immigrants could be better integrated into the state. But for some of the changes, including driver’s licenses and in-state tuition, Patrick said he would need Congress to pass immigration reform legislation — something that seems unlikely in the next couple of years.

“You can’t do it without some changes in federal law in both of those cases,’’ Patrick said. “Working with the federal government is the only way we’re going to be able to move those forward. But I still think they’re right.’’

It would be an uphill battle: Massachusetts passed a budget amendment in May explicitly banning in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and the 1996 federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act states that undocumented immigrants cannot receive tuition benefits from the states.

But if Massachusetts scraps its ban, the state could feasibly pass a law allowing the benefits, as long as they also applied to citizens from other states who attended high school in Massachusetts for three years. Ten states already allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition if they meet other eligibility requirements, and California’s Supreme Court ruled in favor last week of in-state tuition for undocumented students as long as citizens were also eligible if they met certain guidelines.

Undocumented immigrants also have driving rights in other states, although there have been moves to restrict them. New Mexico and Washington allow illegal immigrants who live in the state to receive driver’s licenses, while Utah has driver’s privilege cards for non-citizens. Patrick said the state would first have to repeal the Real ID, a 2005 federal law that mandated strict criteria for driver’s licenses accepted for official federal purposes.

Some of the other changes Patrick said he would implement would not require as much legislative action. The New American Agenda, which was initially released last year, also called for more English classes, increased public transportation and better enforcement of wage theft. There are an estimated 130,000 to 200,000 illegal immigrants residing in Massachusetts, according to 2009 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, and about 1 million legal immigrants.

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