I n 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation cancelled a number of drivers’ licenses across the state to comply with a 2002 law change. Their justification was that the licenses were flagged in their databases as possibly fraudulent.
For many of these licenses, the reason they appeared fraudulent was that they had been issued to people using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and not a Social Security Number. The IRS issues an ITIN to people who file taxes and can’t obtain a SSN, the majority of whom are undocumented.
Suddenly, across the state, people who had previously been able to safely drive to work, to the store or to their friend’s house now feared being pulled over by police. They were forced to choose between losing mobility or risk being arrested or detained by police for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In rural areas, where distance abounds and public transportation is naught, the detrimental effects of the license cancellations were exacerbated.
As a result of this increased precariousness, a group called the Fight for Driver’s Licenses, or Lucha Pro Licencias de Conducir in Spanish, formed to fight against the new law. During my junior year internship, I worked closely with the FFDL and was personally inspired by the community empowerment taking place.
The FFDL was formed as a multi-racial, multi-lingual, largely immigrant organization that highlighted the lived realities of people deprived of a driver’s license. One of its main focuses is a campaign urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to return the law to its pre-2002 form, so that anyone with an ITIN can legally obtain a driver’s license.
Since ITINs are specifically assigned to taxpayers, this debate obviates one argument levied against undocumented immigrants: that they don’t pay taxes. Many undocumented immigrants have ingrained idealistic values motivating them to earn their livelihood while aiding their adopted land of opportunity.
Many also pragmatically understand that establishing a tax-paying record aids both immediate attempts to establish credit, and therefore rent or lease an apartment, and long-term efforts to obtain residency and citizenship.
There are also the cold, hard numbers proving time and again that undocumented immigrants pay taxes. According to the non-partisan research group Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, quoted in a 2013 Huffington Post article, every year undocumented immigrants contribute $10.6 billion in state and local taxes alone, through sales, excise, property and income taxes.
More important than repudiating this misguided belief is highlighting the moral imperative of supporting migrants in our communities. Many Penn students come from not only migrant backgrounds, but undocumented migrant backgrounds. We belong to the over 16 million people in the United States in “mixed-status” families.
You will be hard-pressed to find such an individual who looks kindly on the belief that our families are a nuisance to any city or country. Especially when we know, and studies back up, that undocumented immigrant communities face acute mental and physical health disparities, daily discrimination, cultural assimilation, wage theft, sexual abuse, incarceration, detention and public vilification.
Undocumented immigrants deserve the same access to practical necessities as documented immigrants and native-born residents. They should not have to fear incarceration and deportation for deciding to run to the store for cereal, for dropping their kids off at school or carpooling to work.
By denying undocumented immigrants the ability to drive legally, we are criminalizing an activity many of us take for granted yet rely on. We are making our neighborhoods even more unsafe, by building mistrust in the police within some of the most vulnerable communities. We are allowing families to be separated, because a family member got behind the wheel. We are allowing yet another form of legalized discrimination and criminalization in this state.
Democratic representative Mark Cohen, after extensive collaboration with the FFDL, has sponsored House Bill 1648, which would return the law to its pre-2002 form. In the meantime, the FFDL will continue to increase awareness of the situation and build support across the state for the bill. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to visit licenciaspa.org and allies to sign a letter of support, available on the websi te.
Yessenia Gutierrez is a College fifth-year senior studying biology and Latin American studies from Hollywood, Fla. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Yessi Can” appears every other Monday.Comments powered by Disqus
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