Before 2002, you did not need a Social Security number to apply for a driver’s license in Pennsylvania. Instead, to prove your identity, you could provide a federally-issued tax identification number along with other documents. This meant that undocumented immigrants were able to take and pass the driving exam in order to apply for a driver’s license.
In 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) canceled the driver’s licenses of tens of thousands of undocumented Pennsylvanians who had legally obtained their licenses using pre-2002 criteria. As anyone who lives beyond easy access to public transportation knows, driving is a necessity for much of day-to-day life: taking children to school, shopping for groceries, going to work or getting to medical appointments.
In addition to making these everyday activities of life much more difficult, not having valid identification creates fear and stress within immigrant communities, including those where various family members have a different immigration status. Having valid identification means that if an undocumented immigrant is pulled over during a traffic stop, they will not automatically be put into jail and be thrust into the quagmire of deportation hearings. Having state-issued identification is also vital for many other family functions. People might need an ID to get their prescriptions, or to enter a medical facility, or to prove they can pick up their children from school.
There is a remedy for this situation being proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature, HB 279. This bill would provide driver’s licenses for all. Opening up driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants is not only good for them, but for all of us, for our safety and our economy. If implemented, it could expand the number of those who know the rules of the road, have car insurance, buy cars and gas for their cars, and have greater accessibility to more jobs. Undocumented immigrants are a vital part of our economy. In Philadelphia alone, approximately 50,000 undocumented workers pay more than $128 million in taxes annually.
As Jews, we have additional reasons based on our historical experiences and our religious tradition to be concerned about the welfare of immigrants. The Torah commands us to befriend and protect the stranger, no less than 36 times. The Torah gives two reasons for this commandment. The first calls on our experiences and our compassion: “You shall not oppress the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The second reason the Torah gives is we were mistreated while strangers, so do not do to others what was done to you. To reinforce this, the Torah reminds us that God hears the cry of the oppressed. Not just our sojourn in Egypt, but thousands of years of wanderings and being outsiders should sensitize us to the experience of immigrants.
We just celebrated Sukkot where each night we invite ushpizin (guests) in the symbolic form of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David to enter our sukkot. We are supposed to donate the amount that would feed these supernal guests to the needy. Let us transform our sukkot into a metaphorical sukkah to protect all who need shelter and support.
Pennsylvania should join 15 other states, including New York and New Jersey, that have passed legislation providing driver’s licenses for all. Urge your state representative to support HB 279. It is both the moral and sensible thing to do.
Rabbi Alan Iser is a member of the board at HIAS Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia-based immigration legal and social services organization, and an adjunct professor of theology at St. Joseph’s University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.