Update: Immigrants in Pa. win case against PennDOT

PA driver's license image from PADUIBlog.com

Just last week many of y’all read about the six immigrants in Pennsylvania who got to keep their driver’s licenses after a court ruled in their favor.

I asked ACLU attorney Valerie Burch to explain in simple terms what this ruling mean for her clients and at least 1,100 other people who saw their licenses revoked last year.

I also had the chance to talk to Desi Burnette with the Media Mobilizing Project, and she told me they have set up an email to receive more cases from people whose licenses were revoked. The email is licencias@mediamobilizing.org.

Now, here’s part of the exchange I had with Valerie Burch:

Mojado Citizen: Does this mean the case is over?

Valerie Burch: The case is over unless PennDOT decides to request review by the PA Supreme Court. Even if PennDOT requests review, the PA Supreme Court need not give it. If it requests review, PennDOT must do so by Nov. 10.

MC: What’s going to happen with their licenses once they expire?

VB:Once the clients’ licenses expire, they will have to renew the licenses as anyone would. Because they are noncitizens, they must, at the time of renewal, present documents “indicating continued legal presence in the United States.” Section 1514(e)(3) of the PA Vehicle Code. Note: People with pending applications (e.g. to adjust status, for asylum, etc.) are legally present for purposes of this law. The documents that may be required are listed in Pub. 195 “Identification and Legal Presence Requirements for Non-United States Citizens.” According to Pub 195 (and, implicitly, the decision of the Commonwealth Court), people who do not have SSN’s may be required to instead present an ITIN and “a letter from SSA indicating that SSA did not make a decision yet, or SSA rejection letter.” Here lies a pitfall. PennDOT has failed to provide us with a clear statement on what the SSA letters must say. Clients have presented letters to PennDOT, and the ones presented weren’t what the PennDOT lawyers were looking for. I’ve called the SSA and asked how we can get the “right” SSA letters containing the magic words–whatever they are… The SSA staff who would speak with me told me to ask PennDOT. They didn’t know what I was talking about. If PennDOT wants to be safe (and fair), it will work with the SSA (and other stakeholders including ACLU-PA and AILA) to clarify what these letters must say and how to get one. This whole debacle arose when PennDOT asked the SSA to verify the identity of drivers. The SSA couldn’t do that for ITIN users. So, for people without SSNs, PennDOT seems to want the SSA to say, ‘Yeah, we checked this person’s immigration status using all the right documents, which he showed us, and we decided that he’s not eligible for a SSN.’ I don’t think that the SSA is in the business of telling people so definitively that they are ineligible for SSNs. I have never seen a letter saying, explicitly, ‘Mr. X is not eligible for a SSN.” Instead, I’ve seen noncomittal letters effectively saying, ‘We didn’t give you a SSN because you didn’t show us the documents you need to obtain a SSN.’ Does this mean that the person is ineligible for a SSN? Probably! But, it doesn’t satisfy PennDOT. PennDOT isn’t being clear about its request to the SSA, and immigrant drivers are caught in the middle–treated as if THEY must bear the burden of working out this bureaucratic communications nightmare. And worse, they have everything to lose . . . like their jobs . . . as pizza delivery guys, etc. Thankfully, the Commonwealth Court said, no, it’s not their problem. It’s PennDOT’s problem. Implicit in the ruling is the conclusion that PennDOT must clearly define the contents of the SSA letters and give people notice and a meaningful opportunity to either obtain the letters or explain why they couldn’t. This process is due them because, in 2011, people have a right to their drivers’ licenses. I do worry that PennDOT will fail to clarify the SSA letter requirement and summarily refuse to renew licenses because a driver has failed to present an SSA letter containing the magic words. I worry about this because it’s not clear to me that people have as much of a right to renew their licenses as they do to avoid their cancellation. Due process is only required when important rights are at stake. I’m not so sure that a person has the right to renew a license. A person does, however, have a right not to be discriminated against, based on national origin, in obtaining government-issued licenses and benefits. My hope is that I won’t have to litigate that issue and that PennDOT will either drop the SSA letter requirement altogether or work with the SSA and stakeholders to ensure that everyone who is not entitled to a SSN can easily get an SSA letter containing the magic words. The SSA letters are silly anyway. They don’t prove a thing about the person’s identity. If the SSA doesn’t have a record of your SSN, then it can’t verify your identity.

MC:What does this mean to the thousands of people that got their licenses revoked?
VB:I’m still researching the answer to this last question. If a person’s license was cancelled in violation of due process–the same way these 6 were cancelled–and that person stopped driving, believing herself ineligible to do so, and suffered great harm (i.e. lost her job) as a result, then she might have a remedy available to her. We hope to issue an advisory on this . . . once I figure it out . . .


About Gustavo Martínez Contreras

was born in Texas, brewed in Mexico City, seasoned in the Mexico-United States border, aged walking the streets of Philadelphia. He had a short-lived stint eating grits, fried chicken, and peaches in Atlanta. He later became a béisbol writer for El Diario de Nueva York. He has written about immigrant communities in English, Spanish, and some Spanglish. Although he does not have a shelf full of awards, Gustavo has received thank you notes and hugs from people who have trusted him with their stories. His work has appeared in Voices of New York, El Diario/La Prensa, Dallas’ Al Día, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Philadelphia Weekly, Radio Bilingüe, Latina Lista, Spot.us, among others. He is currently pursuing a master's degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
This entry was posted in Immigration, Latino issues, Pennsylvania, politics, Social Justice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Update: Immigrants in Pa. win case against PennDOT

  1. Pingback: Adjust Status to Green Card | Green Card Immigration Lawyer

  2. Shah says:

    PennDOT has to get its act together in terms of training their DL personnel on Immigration matters. They seem to not understand some of the basics and they’ve been utterly making mistakes in keying in the numbers and such. That tend to yield some wrong results and those impact the immigrants a lot.

    Even when the document clearly says what’s needed for certain category of immigrants they tend to be not versed in those and the worst part, is not willing to even look a bit deep into the matter to resolve it amicably. It clearly seem like an abuse of power and discrimination in some cases. The head of the DL group need to dig a deep into this and not screw up the lives of these aspiring immigrants who in many cases have been waiting for their green cards for decades because of a screwed up immigration process.


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