By Brian Zayatz
This article originally appeared in The Shoestring.
[Update 8/19/22: Fair and Secure MA is reporting that they have surpassed the number of required signatures to get their question on November’s ballot. The Secretary of State has yet to certify those signatures himself. Brazilian Worker Center Executive Director Lenita Reason and 32BJ SEIU Executive Vice President Roxana Rivera issued a statement clarifying that the process is not over and decrying the “dismaying tactics of fear, resentment, and misinformation” used by Fair and Secure MA. “The number of signatures required to force a ballot question represents less than two percent of those who voted in the last Massachusetts midterm election, and recent polling indicates that a majority of Massachusetts voters support the driver’s license law, which will transform thousands of immigrants’ lives for the better and improve roadway safety for everybody,” they write. “If necessary, we are fully prepared to defend these truths in a vigorous fall campaign in support of a ‘yes’ vote to allow Massachusetts’ new driver’s license law to keep moving forward.”]
Only weeks after the successful conclusion of the campaign to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses in Massachusetts, a right-wing coalition calling itself Fair and Secure MA formed with the goal of putting the law on November’s general election ballots.
The Work and Family Mobility Act finally saw significant movement this year after over a decade of organizing by a broad coalition of supporters, including undocumented immigrants themselves, as well as other stakeholders such as business owners and chiefs of police. The bill passed the House 120-36 in February and the Senate 32-8 in June, with no Republican support in either house. Governor Baker then vetoed the bill, which both houses then voted to override by similar margins. The law is set to take effect in July 2023.
That is, if Fair and Secure MA is unsuccessful in passing its ballot initiative. In order to get the question on the ballot, the group will have to collect 40,120 signatures by August 24th. In the lead up to their deadline, they are tabling for signatures around the state.
But they are not the only ones hitting the sidewalks. Volunteers calling themselves Decline to Sign have been showing up at Fair and Secure MA signature gatherings attempting to provide more information and context about the law that was passed, in the hopes of preventing the group from getting enough signatures.
“We’re making sure that those asked to sign the petition have the correct, factual information in order for them to make the decision,” said Roxana Rivera, Vice President of the New England district of 32BJ SEIU, a majority-immigrant union which co-led the campaign for the law. “We think the folks asking folks to sign the petition are spreading a lot of ugly misinformation about undocumented immigrants.”
“For example,” Rivera continued, “the Mass GOP has been misinforming people that non-citizens will be able to vote. That’s clearly untrue. Under current law in MA, there’s thousands of licensed drivers that are not citizens that do not vote. The state already has protections against that, so this would be no different.”
Fair and Secure MA is seemingly not of a kind with the sleek, well-funded ballot initiative campaigns the state typically sees from the right. Their website is clunky, containing no information meant to persuade voters to sign on—only their logo, reading “NO Licenses for Illegal Immigrants,” a list of places to sign on (including at least ten gun shops), and a low resolution ad for a “Red Wave Summer Tour” event at an Irish Ale House in Yarmouth. Their tables are staffed not by paid contractors, but a ragtag team of volunteers diverse in temperament and strategy.
The Decline to Sign campaign, unlike its predecessor, the Driving Families Forward coalition, is an ad-hoc team of volunteers pulled together on short notice to defend the law. Many were part of the initial campaign for the law, but others are merely sympathetic to the cause.
To get a sense of what this has looked like on the ground, The Shoestring stopped by three supermarkets where both groups planned on having volunteers on Saturday the 13th.
Ludlow Big Y
At the Ludlow Big Y, The Shoestring found three Decline to Sign volunteers sitting on a bench in the shade who had been waiting for nearly an hour for Fair and Secure’s volunteers to show. They occasionally speculated whether some people they noticed driving around the parking lot may have been volunteers waiting to see if they would leave.
Anthony King, who had also spent the previous weekend volunteering at the Westfield Big Y, said that “the whole time I was there, there were only two or three people who were on the fence. Some people are showing up just to sign.” As if on cue, an older man who had been milling about came over to ask if they knew anything about where to find the people who were supposed to be gathering signatures. The volunteers replied in the negative.
“If they’re waiting for us to leave, that’s not a very good strategy,” King quipped. Soon after, the group split up to keep someone covering Ludlow while others went to other locations.
Southampton Big Y
Upon arrival at the Southampton Big Y, police were already present. According to Decline to Sign volunteer Jesse Hassinger, Big Y management had asked them to leave, asserting that they did not have the legal right to be there. Hassinger referred them to Batchelder v. Allied Stores International, Inc. and Strahan v. Frazier, court cases that the Decline to Sign campaign argues protect the right of individuals to ask voters not to sign petitions as much as it does the right to collect signatures.
After police arrived, Hassinger said, “they said that they were gonna call the DA’s office, which the officer was sitting in the car doing for the last fifteen minutes, and then they came over and said that the DA would uphold the trespassing.” Northwestern DA David E. Sullivan’s office would not comment on the nature of any conversation that took place with the Southampton Police, who did not respond to request for comment by press time. Sullivan endorsed the Work and Family Mobility Act alongside ten other Massachusetts DAs earlier this year.
“This happens every week,” Hassinger continued, adding that “last week we were actually able to get the police to let the Big Y management know that we were able to be [at their Westfield location] legally.
Earlier in the summer, Mass GOP chair Jim Lyons filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Maura Healey, State Senator Jamie Eldridge, and Waltham City Councilor Jonathan Paz, the latter two of whom volunteered with Decline to Sign. A judge did not find sufficient evidence of harassment or intimidation and declined to issue a requested restraining order against the elected officials, but advised them to stay at least twenty feet away from the signature gatherers.
The police at the scene in Southampton refused to comment on what had occurred, as did the two volunteers at the Fair and Secure table, though one did assert that they only wanted to bring the law to a vote. Several people came to sign the petition in the few minutes I was standing there, including at least one man in an Escalade who came out only to sign (who also did not want to comment).
Northampton Stop & Shop
Stop & Shop management immediately attempted to prevent Fair and Secure from setting up their table. A second Fair and Secure volunteer wearing a “Law Enforcement for Trump” thin blue line hat arrived and livestreamed the interaction with management and a police officer who arrived shortly thereafter. Eventually, management agreed to let the table stay if they filled out the requisite forms on the spot. Before leaving, the Trump-hatted volunteer told the other that he might consider leaving aside his turtle poster, to which the latter earnestly replied, “it’s my issue.”
The turtle poster, which was as big as the Fair and Secure MA poster, depicted a low-resolution photograph of a roadkill turtle, which I was soon informed was meant to illustrate an apparently dire population problem in the US. The volunteer spent about fifteen minutes explaining that he was against the Work and Family Mobility Act because of the “signal” it sent that unchecked population growth via immigration was acceptable, and likened the choice to a trolley problem in which “billions of creatures” would die. He also said some of his family died in the holocaust, and none of them ever thought of breaking the law to emigrate.
Two groups of Decline to Sign volunteers stood over fifty feet away in either direction. In nearly an hour of observation, only three people signed the petition. Hannah, a Decline volunteer, said it was “important to be out here and offer facts rather than fearmongering.”
A Southern Strategy for Massachusetts
“They’re trying to give a reason for Republicans in Massachusetts to come out and vote in the November elections,” said Rivera during our phone interview, “unfortunately in a very ugly way, because of how they’re talking about immigrants.”
The Fair and Secure MA cause has been championed by the likes of Secretary of State candidate Rayla Campbell and state GOP chair Jim Lyons, seen by many as the leader of the Trump-adoring insurgency in the state party against the historically dominant moderate wing currently helmed by Governor Baker. For all the flair of figures like these, however, the campaign has largely been tight-lipped: my experiences on the ground aside, the campaign’s website and social media pages contain no talking points, nor do Mass GOP press releases, and their contact, GOP staffer Wendy Wakeman, responded to a request for talking points to say only that “the committee is fully engaged in obtaining the signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.”
By contrast, a handout with Decline to Sign talking points seemed aimed at dispelling myths and falsehoods about the Work and Family Mobility Act, such as concerns that licenses will be used to register to vote, or that law enforcement do not support the law. It also points to statistics in states like Connecticut, where regions of the state with high rates of adoption of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants saw decreases in hit and run incidence, whereas the rest of the state saw an increase.
Groups like 32BJ and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center had been planning on using this time before the law takes effect to educate their constituencies about the new law and how to apply for a drivers license. But Rivera did not seem altogether surprised at the turn of events. “If it was something that would’ve been easy to win, it would’ve been won a long time ago,” she said. If Fair and Secure’s petition succeeds, Rivera said the coalition plans to run a strong ‘yes’ campaign for “immigrant rights [and] safety on the road,” as Senior Communication Strategist Frank Soults added.
“There’s no doubt that, if this gets on the ballot, there will be a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the kind of misinformation that we’ve been hearing said in parking lots will be broadcast more widely and more strongly,” Soults went on. “So to prevent that we hope that voters will not sign this petition and will keep it off the ballots, and will allow a law that has just been passed to go forward.”
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