There used to be a time when an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number was all Pennsylvania residents needed to obtain a state driver’s license. But in the aftermath of 9/11, when the country was struggling to find ways to simultaneously increase security and maintain freedom for all Americans, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation in 2002 mandating that driver’s licenses can be provided only to people with Social Security numbers. This year, a group of Pennsylvania House Democrats, including Philadelphia Reps. Mary Isaacson (D-175th dist.), Joe Hohenstein (D-177th dist.), Elizabeth Fiedler (D-184th dist.) and the bill’s prime sponsor, Danilo Burgos (D-197th dist.), have cosponsored a bill that would allow Pennsylvania residents who don’t have Social Security numbers to obtain driver’s licenses as well. Burgos said at a recent House Democratic Policy Committee hearing that his intention is to provide an opportunity to “undocumented members” of the Pennsylvania community who are “contributing to the growth of the commonwealth” to legally acquire driver’s licenses.
Proponents of the legislation say it increases safety and benefits the economy. According to Diana Polson, a policy analyst at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, about 164,000 undocumented people live in Pennsylvania. If they were legally able to get driver’s licenses, Polson argued, the state would earn an additional $13 million increased revenue over three years from taxes, registration fees, license fees and vehicle-related purchases.
“While overall this would be a modest increase in state revenues,” she testified, “it is undoubtedly positive, which is important to note given our current economic and budget crisis.”
She noted that the state’s undocumented population contributes $135 million in state and local taxes annually. She added that more insured drivers means lower insurance costs for all Pennsylvania residents.
“When more people are covered, there are less accidents involving uninsured drivers, which reduces insurance rates for everyone and out-of-pocket expenses surrounding crashes,” she said.
She also noted that the legislation will allow undocumented people “to acquire jobs that better match their skills in a broader geography.”
“When workers can find jobs that better fit their skills, workers, employers and the entire community benefit,” she said. “A driver’s license can improve this job matching and ensure that all essential workers can get to work safely.”
Specifically, the legislation would allow people without a Social Security number to apply for a driver’s license or learner’s permit using secure alternatives such as a federal taxpayer identification number, a federal waiver for non-issuance of a Social Security number for religious reasons, or any combination of documents that reliably proves the applicant’s name and date of birth, including a valid foreign passport, consular identification document or certified record of the individual’s birth, marriage, adoption or divorce.
“Throughout this pandemic, countless undocumented Pennsylvanians have sacrificed their lives, and the lives of their families, filling the role of essential workers to ensure communities across the commonwealth aren’t without critical supplies,” Burgos said. “We express our gratitude for their labor during this time, but it falls flat when we fail to make them feel like esteemed members of our community. My legislation would provide them — our neighbors — with the safety and the dignity they deserve.”
At one point during the hearing, testimony from a Franklin County sixth-grader named Michael touched on this very point. Last year, he explained, his younger brother fell and had to get stitches.
“My dad had to take him to the hospital without a license,” said Michael. “Besides being scared about my brother, I was scared that my dad would get deported … Without my parents, what am I supposed to do? I can’t work or provide. Everyone should have the right to drive.”
Olga Velasquez, an undocumented immigrant living in Pittsburgh who is also a single mother of two children, said that “having a driver’s license would mean that the state of Pennsylvania recognizes us as human beings.”
“I’m afraid that the police will stop me and deport me and then my children, who are U.S. citizens, will be completely alone,” Velasquez said through a translator. “That is the biggest fear and drag on my 12-year-old son.”
Hohenstein, who worked as an immigration attorney before joining the House, said the issue was “personal” for him.
“I spent many years representing people in the immigrant community,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure that what we are doing with this bill is recognizing that all people deserve an equal opportunity to reach the dreams that we promised them in our American society.”
Hohenstein’s opponent in the November election, John Nungesser, opposes the legislation.
“Driving is a privilege in this country for those born here and those who followed the process to obtain legal citizenship,” he said in an email to the Star. “Allowing undocumented citizens to obtain licenses chips away at the process to become legalized American citizens and incentivizes people to not follow the immigration laws in this country.”
Isaacson echoed Hohenstein’s sentiment.
“We really need to work … to make sure that we get these driver’s licenses or identifications accessible,” she said, “so that everybody can pursue the economic benefits of living in this country.”
If signed into law, Pennsylvania would join 17 states, including neighboring Delaware, to allow undocumented residents to legally obtain a driver’s license.
In 2009, PennDOT cancelled the licenses of several thousand people who obtained them legally, according to the Movement of Immigrant Leaders PA (MILPA).
“Overnight, Pennsylvanians who relied on their driver’s licenses had their livelihoods and their safety cut off,” said MILPA statewide coordinator Desi Burnette. “The impact of those cancellations and the restriction has meant that our roads are less safe. It has meant that many in our state are further cut off from meeting their basic human needs.”