Immigrants v. PennDOT: The Right to Drive

The Pa. Dept. of Transportation arbitrarily revoked their licenses. They fought back—and won.

By Gustavo Martinez
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Apr. 20, 2010

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Photo by PW Staff

Without the benefit of legal counsel, six South American immigrants waged a court battle against the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and won the right to keep their driving privileges after the agency arbitrarily suspended them. The group didn’t plan on rising up against the agency without legal representation, but they couldn’t get a lawyer to touch their individual (or collective) cases. They were told it was better to keep quiet and not fight authority. Easier to just accept that their driver’s licenses had been revoked.

But María del Pilar Serna de Andrade, William Posada, Jesse Latorre, Pedro Camargo, Sandra González and Juan Carlos Ramírez were not prepared to do that. Their livelihoods depended on standing up to PennDOT, together. “We didn’t know each other up until this case,” says Colombian native Serna de Andrade.

The ordeal began last year when PennDOT sent out thousands of letters to drivers whose Social Security numbers did not match the Social Security Administration database. Up until this case, PennDOT had suspended almost 1,100 licenses after determining that the identification numbers on those applications were not actual socials.

According to PennDOT spokeswoman Danielle Klinger, the letters asked that individuals provide the required documentation to a driver’s license center “in order to resolve the discrepancy.” Klinger says the correspondences were sent out “in order to improve the accuracy of our records and mitigate the risk for fraud and identity theft. Ultimately, those individuals who did not verify their Social Security numbers had their driving privilege canceled.”

In May, all six of the claimants received notices that their licenses had been revoked, and that’s when Serna de Andrade decided to fight back. “I didn’t do anything illegal,” says the Northeast Philly resident who depends on driving to get to her various jobs and to take her mother to regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments. “I have always tried to follow the laws and that’s why I won’t let them take away ... this privilege that allows me to take care of myself and my family.”

For the next six months, Serna de Andrade says she tried in vain to get legal and political help. “I went to many places, talked to politicians and attorneys that promised they would help ... but left us alone in the end,” she says. “So I decided to speak out and defend my rights.”

During her months of fighting, Serna de Andrade found that she was not alone in the quest to prevent PennDOT from canceling her license.

“I’m a pizza delivery man,” says Posada, also a native Colombian. “If they take away my driver’s license they affect not only me but my family. And we’re working class people with no other means to make a living, man.”

Both Serna de Andrade and Posada have had their driver’s licenses for more than 10 years, and like the other four members of the group, they both used their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), a tax-processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service, to apply for the licenses.

According to the IRS, ITINs are for federal tax reporting only, and are not intended to serve any other purpose. An ITIN does not authorize work in the U.S. or provide eligibility for Social Security benefits or the Earned Income Tax Credit. In fact, ITINs are not valid identification outside the tax system.

That was news to many in the group who met gradually while attending community meetings organized around the issue.

“At the PennDOT office they told me I could use the ITIN number to get my license 12 years ago,” Posada says. “How come they haven’t told me anything in any of the other four times I have renewed my license?”

During the case, PennDOT’s attorney, Marc Werlinsky, argued that department statute 1572 sub-section (a) establishes that a driver’s license can be canceled, among other provisions, if the licensee was not entitled to the issuance or the person failed to give the required or correct information or committed fraud in making the application or in obtaining the license.

But on March 29, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge sided with the drivers and ruled that PennDOT had no authority to suspend their licenses, no matter what ID number they used. “They can’t cancel an existing license,” said Judge Esther R. Sylvester in court records obtained by Philadelphia Weekly.

The records reveal that Sylvester based her decision on PennDOT’s authority rather than the legality of the documents each driver used to obtain their licenses, which was what the transportation agency had challenged in the first place.

PennDOT’s Klinger assured PW that up until this case, the agency had won all previous appeals, and added that the ruling would not stop agency in the future. “It is PennDOT’s intention to appeal the …Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas rulings,” she says.

At least three of the affected say they are currently going through an immigration process called adjustment of status under the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act of 2000 (LIFE Act), signed by President Clinton. It means that they are waiting for an official resolution in their residency-application process. Serna de Andrade says she has been waiting since 1991 and just recently received a letter saying she has to resubmit her paperwork.

“They told me my documents got lost,” she says.

Because of this process, none of the affected drivers can obtain a Social Security number, something that even PennDOT raises in its statute number 1510, “An applicant shall include his Social Security number on his license application, but the Social Security number shall not be included on the license.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Anonymous said... on Apr 21, 2010 at 10:39AM

“As this new clearly present, Penn-DOT should rethink what they are doing, this department is claiming that this people are using false documentation and they OBTAIN a Driver License and even renew it several times with fake information. False or fake information means FEDERAL OFFENSE, witch is not the case here. Even if you are not a national, no matter what country you are or coming from, every country give the universal right to defend and protect yourself under the law. This people has done everything within the law and probed they are not criminals so they have the right to keep this privilege. There is not perfect system, but we are here to fix it and make it better; all together as one.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 24, 2010 at 12:13PM

“This is great news for those who are in the same situation. Thanks for this valuable resource. I'm sure it'll help many people. It is great to see they stood up and fought penndot.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 25, 2010 at 11:16PM

“WHY DONT ILLEGAL ALIENS JUST GET OUT”

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4. Anonymous said... on Apr 27, 2010 at 10:44AM

“Pendot is not saying that these people were using false infor to get a driver license. Pendot is saying the information that they have on file doesn't match up and requested that documentation be submitted so the files can be corrected. It happens to immigrants and Americans. They started doing this over two years ago. I don't know if these people got their letters but this is one of the reasons they tell you to update your address when you move so you don't miss letters if that's the case. Renew early that way if there is a problem you have time to straighten it out.”

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5. Anonymous said... on May 3, 2010 at 01:37AM

“To the 4th comment, You missed the point entirely. Its the fact that Pendot had been letting them use their ITN number for over 10 years, even after the new measures were instituted they kept giving them their licences with their ITN number. Pendot never told any of them that they couldnt use that, in fact they told them they could. So it was retro-active for them to tell them they gave them false info when they asked for that info themseleves.”

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6. Dagoberto Mosquera said... on May 10, 2010 at 11:46AM

“Este es el tipo de recurso que nosotros necesitamos dar a conocer al público en general. Lo escribo en español porque sé que hay muchos que están en igual situación pero no lo pueden leer para tomar este ejemplo y resolver sus casos.
"Amigo, si le están diciendo que su licencia no puede ser renovada por falta de seguro social y usted ha aplicado a inmigración para legalizar su estatus migratorio y tiene cómo probar esto, reclame ante PENNDOT. Usted tiene el derecho a su licencia basado el los estatutos de PENNDOT parte 1510….".

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7. Anonymous said... on Nov 30, 2011 at 01:00PM

“IN GOD WE TRUST.ONLY WE NEED DRIVING FOR PUT INSURANCE?AND WORK,AND FOOD FOR US FAMILY.”

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8. william said... on Jan 6, 2012 at 09:31PM

“penndot is stupid all they want is to get a license and keep goin with thier lives some people [ Hispanics ] do want to work”

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