Undocumented immigrants, including farmworkers, have been gaining driving privileges in states across the Northeast.
Immigrant-rights groups are pushing for Pennsylvania to join the club, though critics say such measures create security risks.
“A driver’s license is essential to earn a living, travel safely and live a dignified existence,” said Rep. Danilo Burgos, D-Philadelphia, who has introduced a bill to allow people without a Social Security number to get a license using alternative documents.
At least 16 states — including Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont — allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Virginia will join the list Jan. 1, according to WSET-TV.
While Burgos’ bill is not specifically about farmworkers, they would be clear beneficiaries of the policy.
After all, 17% of ag workers nationwide are immigrants, and more than half of them are undocumented, said Desi Burnette, coordinator for Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Burnette said, some farmers gave their workers letters identifying them as essential workers in case they were stopped by law enforcement.
Still, “this is flimsy protection for the people we depended on throughout this crisis,” Burnette said.
Driver’s licenses could help foreign workers with everyday life as well. They would not have to rely on finding a ride — or driving without a license — to get to the grocery store, bank or laundromat.
Farmers who hire foreign workers legally through the H-2A visa program are required to provide transportation for them.
The ID could also help foreigners access basic services.
“Children of agricultural workers are being asked to learn virtually, yet households are being denied internet services because no one in the home has a state-issued ID,” Burnette said in a Sept. 24 listening session on farmworker needs hosted by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture.
As an example of someone who would benefit from having a driver’s license, Burnette introduced a man she described as an undocumented dairy farm worker from Franklin County.
She omitted the man’s name to protect him from law enforcement.
The man said his family came to the U.S. from Guatemala 20 years ago. His son was deported after being caught driving without a license, and the man is now in a similar dilemma.
“The police told me if they stop me again without a license, I cannot drive,” he said. “One of our biggest needs is transportation.”
Dawn Plummer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, said many farmers support driving privileges for their workers.
“They care deeply about the families they employ,” she said.
Plenty of Americans also think driver’s licenses should be reserved for citizens.
In New York, one of the states that recently expanded its licensing rules, 55% of residents opposed the change, a Siena College poll found in June 2019.
By February, Siena found resistance had softened. New Yorkers were evenly divided, with the strongest opposition from Republicans.
The Department of Homeland Security has criticized New York’s law for its restrictions on sharing driver’s licensing information with federal immigration officials.
The agency says this information is crucial to preventing terrorism and identifying suspected gang members and drug smugglers.
Burnette said her group wants a bill with strict privacy and data protections for all Pennsylvanians.
Burgos, one of the top Democrats on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said his bill would increase safety by cutting the number of unlicensed drivers, and by making licensees more comfortable reporting accidents and cooperating with law enforcement.
A driver’s test would still be required to get the license.
Document fraud is another concern, said Dan Cadman of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports “fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.”
To register foreigners, local governments could be forced to rely on documents that aren’t in English and have been issued in countries where corruption and document forging are commonplace.
Because of “motor-voter” provisions, there’s even a risk that state employees could accidentally register foreigners to vote, Cadman said.
The Driving PA Forward campaign, of which Burnette is a member, is currently participating in 40 days of prayer and fasting — from Sept. 9 to Oct. 19 — in support of driver’s licenses for all. The dates overlap with National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Even so, the current legislative session is nearly over, and Republicans control both houses of the General Assembly.
Whatever the selling points for agriculture, Pennsylvania driver’s licenses for foreigners are likely at the moment to stay stuck in park.