Home News Hohenstein cosponsors bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants

Hohenstein cosponsors bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants

State Rep. Joe Hohenstein

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 Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D-177th dist.), has cosponsored a bill that would allow Pennsylvania residents who don’t have Social Security numbers to obtain driver’s licenses as well.

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.

At one point during the hearing, there was testimony from a Franklin County sixth-grader named Michael. 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,” Michael said. “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.”

If signed into law, Pennsylvania would join 17 states, including Delaware, to allow undocumented residents to legally obtain a driver’s license.

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. “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.”

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