- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 20, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - After campaigning on his power to halt efforts to grant Rhode Island driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, the state’s Democratic House speaker said he stands by that message and his use of the phrase “illegal aliens” in a campaign mailer.

“All politics is local and my district had, in my opinion, a very strong position on that,” said House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who narrowly won re-election to represent his suburban Cranston district last month after beating a Republican challenger by 85 votes.

“I think my strong opinion is my constituents in Cranston are strongly opposed to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, and I try to reflect the values of my constituents,” Mattiello said.

The campaign advertisement sent to Cranston voters features a photo of the speaker with arms crossed and says “Nick Mattiello stopped driver’s licenses for illegal aliens” and “single-handedly blocked this legislation.” Mattiello said he was unaware of any criticism of it.

The criticism had included a protest letter from a coalition of community groups that was circulated on social media and described the language as dehumanizing. Mattiello’s campaign consultant, Jeff Britt, defended the mailer on political blog RI Future shortly before the election.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, who made her own 2014 campaign promise in support of such licenses, said Friday she still thinks they’re a good idea but she can’t do much about it without Mattiello’s support.

“The reality is unless you provide a way for undocumented immigrants to get a license, they’re driving without a license, which is unsafe,” Raimondo said. “That said, he’s been very clear about it so it’s highly unlikely that a piece of legislation would happen.”

For several years, some Democratic lawmakers have introduced immigrant driver’s licenses bills in the Democrat-led General Assembly. The bills have gone through lengthy and emotionally charged committee hearings but never got a vote.

“It’s not me making any final decisions on that,” Mattiello said. “I think if you polled all of my colleagues that overwhelmingly you’re going to find the same opinion because we reflect the values and desires and wants of our constituents.”

Advocacy group Coalition for Safer Rhodes said it was “disheartening to us that the speaker continues to politicize this common sense, bipartisan proposal,” noting that lawmakers in Republican-led Utah approved a similar law.

Twelve states, including neighboring Connecticut, now issue driver’s licenses to immigrants who are residents of those states but don’t have legal U.S. residency. A November report by The Pew Charitable Trusts found moves by states to grant such licenses picked up in 2013, with eight states passing laws, but stalled last year in states including Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Roger Williams University next month plans to release a report produced by its law school and the Latino Policy Institute analyzing the possible effects of immigrant driver’s licenses in Rhode Island. An event is planned for Jan. 5 at the school’s Providence campus.

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