Immigration lawyers say that PennDOT's plan to yank licenses from drivers without a valid Social Security number is unfairly penalizing immigrants who got licenses in the past without a Social Security card.
"It's devastating to them," said Philadelphia immigration lawyer Jon Landau. "These people are working, and many have jobs, like cleaning houses, which require them to use their car."
For the past two years, PennDOT has been checking the Social Security numbers in their driver's license files against numbers in Social Security Administration computers.
PennDOT recently sent 2,100 people letters telling them that their licenses are canceled as of June 19 unless they resolve the discrepancy. PennDOT spokeswoman Danielle Klinger said that those were the last of 45,000 such letters sent since 2007.
It's not clear how many of those affected are immigrants, but Landau said that it's big trouble for those who are.
"For many of these people, [a driver's license is] their only concrete identification," Landau said. "They use it to cash checks, to get on a plane, to enter buildings. Without it, they almost become a nonperson."
Many of Landau's clients are undocumented immigrants. Some have submitted applications for green cards. Others are waiting for immigration reform to offer them a path to legal residency.
But Landau said that many have driver's licenses because PennDOT has granted licenses to applicants without Social Security numbers if they had a federal tax-identification number - a number issued by the IRS that also has 10 digits.
"I got a license in 2000," said Gabriel, an immigrant who didn't want to use his real name. Gabriel is a carpenter in Northeast Philadelphia who came to the U.S. from Brazil with his parents 10 years ago. "When I got my license, they asked for my Social Security number, and I said the only thing I have is the tax-ID number, and they said that's OK."
Gabriel said that he was a legal resident with a visitor's visa when he got his license, and that PennDOT renewed it twice without asking any questions.
Klinger said that current PennDOT officials "honestly don't know" whether there was a policy of accepting tax-identification numbers in the past. But she said that since 2003, PennDOT has been checking new applicants for Social Security numbers except for certain limited exceptions.
And it's clear that undocumented workers like Gabriel would not qualify for a license now.
Gabriel said that he uses his car to get to his construction jobs, as well as to take his wife to work, get groceries and go to church.
"I'm afraid now they'll cancel my insurance and registration and tow my car away," he said.
There's a national debate about whether states should issue driver's licenses to undocumented workers, to make sure that their cars are registered and insured.
Landau said that it makes sense for PennDOT not to issue licenses to newly arriving immigrants who lack documentation.
"But it makes no sense at all to reach back and attack the half-million undocumented immigrants living in the Philadelphia area by taking away their driver's licenses," Landau said. "They take care of our elderly and our children, they clean our houses and they keep our restaurants running. When we cripple them, we cripple our economy."