Hohenstein: Drivers Licenses for All Make us Safer

I am a sponsor of HB279, a bill which calls for Drivers Licenses for All in Pennsylvania.  This is a bill that will make the roads safer and provide an economic boost to our Commonwealth. It would return Pennsylvania law to 2011 and remove any reference to an individual’s US immigration status as a requirement to receive a standard issue Pennsylvania drivers license. Applicants would still need to prove their identity and provide either a Social Security (SS) or Tax Identification Number (TIN). It is a designed to open doors to people who already pay taxes and provide them with a degree of security as they pursue the American Dream.

To be certain, I am supporting this legislation because of my history as an immigration attorney. During 25 years in active practice, I represented people in various stages of the immigration process. I carried men and women and their families forward from being undocumented to being U.S. citizens. Their paths were as different and varied as their countries of origin and there was no single “right way” to get full legal status. Some spent years in legal temporary status, some never had documents, some had a temporary protection that had to be renewed every year, some had asylum cases that took years to adjudicate, and some would boomerang between lawful and unlawful status based on the most recent decision in their immigration cases. If you are familiar with the concept of Purgatory, that is precisely the place where most immigrants reside, neither fully here nor there.

Through all these process, one central factor motivated them – getting documentation that allowed them to work and live legally in the US so that they could come closer to achieving the economic opportunity and political and religious freedom that are the cornerstones of our Nation. 

Under current interpretation of the law in Pennsylvania, without the formal confirmation from US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) (the agency formerly known as INS), a person cannot renew their valid Pennsylvania standard issue drivers license. That does not make sense and that is why I am sponsoring HB279.

Who are the people who will be helped by this law? People with temporary EADs (Employment Authorization Document) that are renewed every year as they wait for final decisions in their valid, pending applications for immigration status. The Dreamers, who received Deferred Action almost 10 years ago because they had been brought here as children but had no other status. For ten years these DACA recipients have played an annual waiting game for status renewal to be announced and processed. The law will also help undocumented workers who have paid taxes for years via the Tax Identification Number system. They may not have lawful status, but they pay taxes and have been supporting our society working in agriculture picking our crops, in restaurants cleaning our plates, and in our neighborhoods mowing our lawns. During the pandemic, we called many of these folks heroes and essential. Now is not the time to quibble over their documentation.

Making drivers licenses more accessible to people means we will be safer. Every licensed driver has to take a road safety test, has to register their vehicle, and has to pay for insurance. In states that have provided expanded eligibility for drivers license insurance rates have dropped. Not only would the roads be safer, but we wouldn’t be paying as much to insure our cars because there will be fewer uninsured motorists. Having a valid driver’s license will also help individuals feel more comfortable in reporting accidents and cooperating with law enforcement.

These are the things HB279 will do. One thing it will NOT do is give anyone the right or the access to vote or to US citizenship. The drivers license provided would be a standard issue, not a Real ID. When I worked as an immigration lawyer I always made sure my clients knew about the rights they had, and the rights they did not have. The penalties for noncitizens voting are very severe and people in the immigrant community know that, so they rarely ever make the mistake to vote when they are not allowed to. In 25 years as an attorney, I had about 10 cases like that total. HB279 will not allow people to vote or gain access to benefits they are not entitled to.

What this bill WILL do is give us safer roads and a more inclusive community. If passed, HB279 would provide a win-win for all Pennsylvanians, regardless of where they were born.