Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Undocumented immigrant workers continue to push for the right to drive legally in Pa.

A Latino man stands next to a table covered with fruits and vegetables.
Gabriela Martínez
Esvin Maldonado, originally from Guatemala, has worked in the dairy industry in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.

Immigrants’ rights groups, workers and their families have been calling on Pennsylvania lawmakers to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses — a proposal that has failed to get traction in previous years.

The Driving PA Forward Coalition hosted a lobby day at the state Capitol Tuesday and a panel presentation focused on challenges undocumented agricultural and food industry workers face without the ability to drive legally. The event highlighted the fall harvest season, and the key roles agricultural and service industry workers play in ensuring the stability of the food supply chain.

“We really wanted to take the opportunity today to thank all of the workers and their families that are part of this food chain that allows us to give thanks and to have this abundance of food that we have in the state,” said Desi Burnette, statewide coordinator for the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania. “But we also don’t want to just thank people. We need to see action.”

The organizers set up a table displaying fruits and vegetables that are generally harvested in the fall at farms that rely heavily on migrant labor.

A table covered in produce.
Gabriela Martínez
The Driving PA Forward coalition set up a Thanksgiving table display at the Capitol to educate about the key role immigrant workers play during harvest season.

Esvín Maldonado, who works from 3 a.m. to noon milking and feeding cows at a dairy farm in Franklin County, made the trip to the Capitol after his shift to share his experiences in a panel presentation.

Originally from Guatemala, Maldonado has worked in dairy farms in Pennsylvania for about 24 years. It takes him 10 minutes to drive, but the entire time he is nervous about getting stopped by the police. Not having a license also complicates routine tasks in his personal life, such as getting groceries and going to the doctor.

It creates a constant environment of fear that also indirectly affects children who grow up with immigrant parents, he said.

“Our children get traumatized when they see a police officer, because the same fear we feel gets transmitted to them,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado was part of a panel that included other workers in the restaurant and food packing industry who are not able to get a driver’s license because they don’t have social security numbers.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker, a farmer in Juniata County and executive director of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, shared that, at her own farm, she is working with a Nicaraguan family who has been going through the asylum process for two years and just got their work authorization.

“This issue has many nuances, and there are many complications faced by somebody who is somehow expected to not work, to manage their lives without authorized work, all the while the rest of us living and working with people depending very much on these people for their labor,” she said.

According to 2018 Census data, 18% of Pennsylvania’s workforce in the areas of farming, forestry and fishing depends on immigrant labor.

A 2015 study by Texas A&M University found that 51% of the country’s dairy farm workforce depends on immigrant labor, and if U.S. farmers lost their foreign-born workers, retail milk prices would nearly double.

Supporters of allowing undocumented immigrants to have licenses are calling on House Transportation Committee Chair Ed Neilson to move HB 769 for a vote. The bill has been in committee since March.

The two main sponsors of the House bill, Danilo Burgos and Joseph Hohenstein, both Democrats from Philadelphia, as well as Chairman Neilson, addressed Driving PA Forward’s panel briefly before rushing out to go back to the House floor for a scheduled vote.

People question Pennsylvania lawmakers.
Gabriela Martínez
Desi Burnette, statewide coordinator for Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania questioned state House Democratic leaders, Reps. Danilo Burgos, Joseph Hohenstein and House Transportation Chairman Ed Neilson about HB 769, a proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses.

The lawmakers pointed to the Republican Senate majority as the major roadblock for the House bill. Nielson said he wanted to be “to be real” about the challenges the bill faces, and that just because the Democrats have a slim majority, that does not mean they can “everything we think that needs to get done in the first year.”

“We can’t get our speed cameras for work zones and all that approved in the Senate. That’s how difficult it is,” Nielson said. But he said that if the Senate sends over its version of the bill, he will “run it within three days.”

“For 10 years, we’ve been told it’s the other party. For 10 years, you’re gonna look at all of these people, families in the face and tell us that you don’t have the power to move this out of committee tomorrow?” Burnette said in response.

Burgos said there is concern that, if the House sends over its bill to the Senate, it will let it die.

“The Senate has not moved not one bill that will benefit any immigrant worker, any immigrant professional,” Burgos said. “We have already sent over bills to the Senate that will remove requirements for teachers that aren’t US citizens to be certified as teachers. The Senate has that bill right now. They’re not moving it.”

Read more from our partners, WITF.