The move is provided for in a state transportation bill just signed into law by Gov. Mark Schweiker.
The bill is intended to bring Pennsylvania into line with new rules for the issuing of driving permits contained in recently enacted federal homeland security legislation.
The sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Richard Geist, told USA Today that the proposed new rule was just “record keeping.”
But as far as one leading Irish immigrant advocate is concerned, the possible move toward including an individual’s immigration status on a driver’s license is an ominous development.
“It can be compared to the scarlet letter,” said Tom Conaghan of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center in Philadelphia, a city that is home to a significant number of undocumented Irish.
“Pennsylvania is probably already the most restrictive state in the union in terms of issuing licenses. You can’t get one unless you are a citizen of a green card holder.”
Conaghan said that the main concern for the undocumented Irish is whether the new rule, when it comes into force, would be made retroactive.
“We’re getting a lot of calls,” he said. “Many undocumented have a driver’s license and nothing else. They are asking what they should say if they are asked about their status when they go in to renew the license, and really we’re not sure yet what to tell them.”
For the undocumented of any nationality, a driver’s license is the next best thing to a green card and allows the individual to function more or less normally on a day-to-day basis.
“Now we could be facing a situation where the undocumented individuals might have to surrender their most important form of identification,” Conaghan said. “It’s hard to know where it’s all going to lead.
“I can only wonder if Pennsylvania feels a need to take the lead in measures such as this because of Tom Ridge,” Conaghan added, referring to the former governor of the state who now is heading the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
Conaghan, meanwhile, is not alone in his concerns over driver’s licenses. The Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is studying the proposed new rule, although it is yet to decide on a possible court challenge.
Other states have already moved toward more restrictive licensing laws. New Jersey issues a license that is nonrenewable for non-citizens who are in the U.S. temporarily on a valid visa. The license does indicate that the driver is in the country temporarily.
Ohio also issues nonrenewable, nontransferable licenses but without any indication as to the holder’s immigration status.