Undocumented Immigrants Fight for Driver’s Licenses in PA: Interrupting the Carceral Pathway from Traffic Stop to Deportation

Undocumented Immigrants Fight for Driver’s Licenses in PA: Interrupting the Carceral Pathway from Traffic Stop to Deportation

By Lulu Obaditch '22; Image by Joe Hernandez/WHYY

Getting a driver’s license is a common rite of passage. For young adults, this rite of passage often marks a newfound independence and freedom. Many of us, white Americans, are able to drive to work, the grocery store, the pharmacy, or school without fearing a traffic stop could uproot our entire livelihoods or put our lives at risk (The Inquirer). However, this fear is profound for undocumented immigrants. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to apply for learner’s permits and driver’s licenses. Pennsylvania is not one of these 16 states. This year, several PA legislators introduced a bill, HB 279, which would allow residents without Social Security numbers to receive driver’s licenses, expanding access to undocumented residents. This potential legislation is especially crucial, as seemingly minor traffic stops can lead to a person’s arrest, detention, and deportation. Without licenses, undocumented residents fear a racially profiled traffic stop during their everyday routine could lead to their deportation. While it is unlikely HB 279 would challenge the policing of Hispanic and Latinx people in Pennsylvania, it would provide some significant, tangible relief for undocumented immigrants in their daily lives.

The immigrant-led statewide coalition, Driving PA Forward, is leading the fight for driver’s licenses for the undocumented. The coalition is comprised of over 15 organizations, ranging from faith-based groups to labor organizations. For example, some of the coalition’s members include CASA, Juntos, MILPA, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, and the Woori Center. Earlier this year, the coalition engaged in 40 days of action to call and write state legislators asking them to support HB 279. Driving PA Forward sent over 2,000 letters to state representatives in February and March.

On their website, The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia outlines why driver’s licenses are a serious necessity for undocumented immigrants. They specifically highlight how driver’s licenses increase one’s ability to access other basic needs and decrease one’s susceptibility to deportation. Additionally, the organization reveals driver’s licenses expand economic access and support the dignity and mental well-being of migrants, their families, and communities.

With driver’s licenses or forms of identification, undocumented immigrants are not only able to access their daily needs more easily, but they are also able to access opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to them. For example, many students are barred from participating in after school activities that require additional travel, such as sports and clubs. In a Lehigh Valley Live article, Driving PA Forward Statewide Coordinator, Luis Larin, urges “‘We are talking about mothers who cannot pick up their kids because they don’t have an ID… We’re talking about people who cannot get their prescription because they don’t have an ID… This is a human rights crisis that needs to be addressed.’” Larin reminds us that driver’s licenses and official IDs are essential in our everyday lives. They provide the freedom of movement and transportation, and the ability to obtain necessities, such as medication.

House Bill No. 279, also known as a green light law, would allow undocumented residents to acquire driver’s licenses and would protect the privacy of their immigration status. The bill would allow individuals to use a taxpayer identification number in addition to a proof of date of birth to apply for learner’s permits and driver’s licenses. This element is key, as it removes the requirement of a Social Security number for a license or permit. The bill would also protect the privacy and citizenship status of applicants. Their application would not be public record, nor would it be available without a lawful court order or judicial warrant. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation would not be allowed to inquire about an applicant’s citizenship status. The bill’s privacy element is critical, as it would protect undocumented immigrants from arrest for driving without a license and may prevent them from being interrogated by police about their immigration status during traffic stops. The bill states, “A noncommercial driver’s license or learner’s permit… shall not be used as evidence of a person’s citizenship or immigration status and shall not be the sole basis for investigating, arresting or detaining a person.” While driving, undocumented immigrants without licenses are often detained after being stopped by police and interrogated about their immigration status. The bill’s privacy element could protect the undocumented and prevent traffic stops from leading to detention. As an article published by VOA News reveals, racially motivated traffic stops in PA are often due to minor “infractions,” such as speeding, a chipped tail light, or tinted windows. The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia cites traffic stops due to racial profiling as the most common incident leading people to the “detention and deportation machine.” While white Americans are often able to fly under the radar with these “infractions” and have the privilege of getting away with speeding or a broken taillight, these factors often lead to an undocumented person’s arrest and deportation. 

HB 279 alone cannot combat the apparatus of policing, detention, and deportation in Pennsylvania. Still, providing undocumented migrants with driver’s licenses, specifically licenses that do not reveal their citizenship status, may interrupt the insidious path from traffic stop to deportation. In a 2018 article entitled For Cops Who Want to Help ICE Crack Down on Illegal Immigration, Pennsylvania Is a Free-for-All,” ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer expose a state police culture of “hunting for illegals,” especially in the central and western regions of the state, outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania does not have an official partnership with ICE to train local police, state police have often taken it upon themselves to act as anti-immigrant vigilantes. In excessive and lengthy traffic stops, often for more than half-an-hour, state police act as pseudo ICE agents, interrogating Latinx drivers and their passengers about their immigration statuses. The article reveals that after these interrogations, police call ICE and arrange detainee handovers in places like McDonald’s parking lots. While HB 279 would not be able to target the state police’s wide-spread racial profiling of Latinx people or it’s unofficial partnership with ICE, it would empower undocumented immigrants and prevent traffic stops from leading to arrest and deportation.

Migration Encounters, a project which uplifts the stories of returning migrants and sheds light on their experiences in the United States, demonstrates the cooperation between ICE agents and police is not a problem limited to Pennsylvania. Many of the individuals who shared their experiences with Migration Encounters speak about the fear of driving and being stopped by police or ICE. For a number of storytellers, a traffic stop set off a chain of events in the American carceral and detention system, leading to their deportation and the uprooting of their lives. Returning migrants also reflected on the difficulties they faced in their everyday lives without IDs or licenses. To protect the privacy and identity of the storytellers, I will refrain from using their names in this article.

A young woman who came to the United States as a young child spoke with Migration Encounters about being stopped by the police for making a U-turn in North Carolina. She spoke about being placed in ICE custody and deported. She describes,

“It was, I think, an illegal turn, a U-turn. I was driving without a license because we can’t get a license but yet again, we do have to get to work. I mean, how are you going to expect anyone to get to work if they don’t have transportation? You have to drive. It’s probably the main thing that, why a lot of people get deported. That and raids.”

Another man interviewed by Migration Encounters describes making a trip to a restaurant with his friends and family and being stopped by the police for driving five miles over the speed limit. He recounts,

“I was with my sister and a buddy and his kids. We had gone to McDonald’s and I was driving back home, and I was going like five miles over the speed limit, and I was pulled over for speeding. Because I didn’t have a license, I was taken to county jail. At county jail, immigration got a hold on me and that’s when I went to the immigration detention center and that’s where I was given my choice of either fighting my case or just leaving voluntarily.”

An older man reveals how inaccessible everyday necessities become when undocumented residents cannot apply for driver’s licenses. The man started a real estate investing business; however, after he was unable to renew his license, his barriers to success in the United States increased dramatically.

“And I was doing quite well until I couldn’t do it anymore because, since I was undocumented, I couldn’t renew my driver’s license. And when you don’t have a license in the state of Texas, pretty much you can’t do anything. You cannot travel, you cannot open a bank account, you cannot do pretty much anything… And it was a very, very hard time for like a year that I couldn’t do nothing because I didn’t have an identification.”

These returning migrants reveal how a traffic stop without a license can lead to the traumatic displacement of an undocumented person’s life. Another migrant conveys how everyday tasks in the U.S. become nearly impossible without a license or identification. Those of us who are citizens are able to go to the bank, work, and travel daily because we can easily get IDs. White people in the U.S. drive to work or to a restaurant with friends and make U-turns without worrying whether a racist cop might stop them and hand them over to ICE agents. Undocumented people, especially Latinx migrants, live in constant uncertainty in their daily lives, particularly while driving. By passing HB 279, Pennsylvania would be able to lessen undocumented residents’ constant fear of being deported and separated from loved ones because of a traffic stop. These storytellers demonstrate why we must remove traffic stops as a major factor connecting undocumented immigrants to ICE and the carceral system. By making driver’s licenses available for all, Pennsylvania has the power to make a significant impact on the safety of its roads and, more importantly, on the well-being of its residents. While increasing access to driver’s licenses will not combat the ways in which state police dehumanize and racially profile Latinx people, it may help us render traffic stops ineffective and obsolete in upholding the carceral immigration apparatus.

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