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PA Legislature, Governor Consider Driver’s Licenses for Illegal Immigrants

Should illegal immigrants be able to get Pennsylvania driver’s licenses? At first, the Shapiro administration seemed to support this idea. Now, not so much.

Answering questions from members of the House Appropriations Committee on March 4, Secretary of Transportation Mike Carroll said he and Gov. Josh Shapiro favor allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

“The issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is something that I support, the department supports, the governor supports, with safeguards necessary to make sure that folks that are issued those products are treated the same as folks that have a regular driver’s license or a naturalized citizen or a citizen of the U.S.,” Carroll said.

However, during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee two days later, Carroll was more tentative.

“There are other agencies that will have a role with respect to the oversight,” Carroll said in response to a question on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants from Sen. Shariff Street (D-Philadelphia). “And it’s going to be important to make sure that those other agencies are able to get to a comfort level before that bill were to advance.”

Shapiro’s spokesman Manuel Bonder told DVJournal, “The Shapiro administration will continue to evaluate this proposal as it moves through the legislative process” — a far cry from a statement of support.

The bill (HB 769) sponsored by Philadelphia Democratic Reps. Danilo Burgos, Christopher Rabb, and Joseph Hohenstein would allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and state identification cards. It remains pending in the transportation committee.

One member of that committee, Rep. Donna Scheuren (R-Gilbertsville), told DVJournal, “Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants undermines the rule of law in Pennsylvania, and I stand against it. Driver’s licenses are a privilege for citizens and legal residents, not those who broke immigration laws, to enter our country illegally. It undermines our immigration system and could threaten our national security.

“As a member of the Transportation Committee, I believe my job entails writing or approving legislation that ensures proper safety measures are being taken in all forms of travel throughout our state,” said Scheuren. “This policy just opens a whole new list of concerns that PennDOT has not yet addressed. I am very opposed to this legislation, and I hope the Shapiro administration reconsiders their support.”

Rep. Mike Cabell (R-Luzerne) asked Carroll on Monday about undocumented immigrants obtaining REAL IDs in Pennsylvania. Beginning in May 2025, Pennsylvanians will need a REAL ID, a passport, or military identification to board an airplane or enter a military base or federal building.

“Over a dozen states already allow noncitizens, including illegal immigrants, to obtain driver’s licenses,” said Cabell. Meanwhile, federal DHS (Department of Homeland Security) policy stipulates that states can offer REAL ID to those with TPS temporary protected status. Does Pennsylvania allow noncitizens with TPS to obtain a real ID?

Carroll said, “When it comes to REAL ID, I was in the House when the REAL ID was voted the first time, and I voted against it because I thought we had a REAL ID in Pennsylvania: it’s called a Pennsylvania driver’s license. (But) Pennsylvania complied with the federal requirement. I have the greatest level of faith in our Pennsylvania motor vehicle folks that those folks that are getting REAL IDs. About 20 percent of Pennsylvania drivers have a real ID at this point, have the documentation necessary to support that REAL ID.”

He mentioned the documentation can be challenging to obtain, especially for women who use their married name.

“But the issuance of REAL ID is not something that happens haphazardly in Pennsylvania,” said Carroll.

Cabell also mentioned ghost flights that drop off illegal immigrants at various locations in the middle of the night. Carroll said he did not know what ghost flights were.

“There was one that just happened. It was diverted into Philadelphia in December,” said Cabell. “The question is, are we positive that there are not people (who are) obtaining REAL IDs in other states, and entering into our state?”

Carroll didn’t know.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the Republican chair of the committee, also asked Carroll whether “the administration does support licenses for illegal immigrants.”

Carroll said, “With the necessary safeguards so that law enforcement can do its job.”

Grove also asked whether the Department of State, which handles voter services, interacts with PennDOT. Deputy Secretary Kara Templeton said the Department of State and the counties have access to the SURE voter registration system. Last fall, Shapiro began a program to register voters automatically when they sign up for a driver’s license.

Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware), a candidate for attorney general, also opposes giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Rep. Lisa Borowski (D-Newtown Square) said, “I look forward to learning more about the provisions of HB 769 when it is vetted through the committee process.”


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ISER: Pennsylvania Needs Driver’s Licenses for All

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. That meant 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 those 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 different immigration statuses. 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 enter a medical facility, or prove they can pick up their children from school.

A remedy for this situation is being proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature, HB-279. The 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. It 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, which 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.

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