Stamp to mark 'noncitizen' on photo IDs for foreigners

Stamp to mark 'noncitizen' on photo IDs for foreigners

Inquirer Staff Writers

All Pennsylvania driver's licenses or photo identification cards issued to foreigners will be stamped "noncitizen" and will be timed to expire with entry visas, according to antiterrorism provisions of a law signed yesterday by Gov. Schweiker.

The new requirements are part of a push by the Governor's Office to tighten security statewide while also adopting elements of federal homeland-security measures enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

The new law imposes a number of changes, including criminal background checks for commercial truck drivers ferrying hazardous or flammable materials, which recently became federal law. It also gives the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation the authority to invalidate a driver's license once a resident moves to another state.

But the provision to mark licenses with a "noncitizen" notation came as a surprise yesterday to some who had been aware of the imminent regulations.

Immigrant advocate Judi Bernstein-Baker likened the "noncitizen" notation to the stigmatizing punishment once imposed by colonial Puritans in which suspected adulterers were forced to wear an embroidered "A" on their clothing.

"Oh great! It's like the scarlet letter," said Bernstein-Baker, executive director of immigration services for Philadelphia-based HIAS and Council, which serves the immigrant community.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a Virginia-based trade organization that tracks driver's-license legislation, could not say yesterday how many other states, if any, require such a mark on their licenses.

Valentine Brown, a New Jersey immigration lawyer and regional president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that she discussed the new policy with Pennsylvania officials in September but that nobody mentioned the "noncitizen" provision. She said immigration advocates had not been consulted about the final bill.

The state is not gratuitously singling out foreigners, said Joy Gross, manager of the Driver License Division of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

"Our intent is not to segment a group of people," Gross said yesterday. "Our intent is only to make sure that there is an indication that we know that this person is here legally or not."

Citizenship by itself is not a mark of legality. Millions of foreign nationals currently live legally in the United States without it, including thousands serving in the U.S. military.

PennDot will not implement the noncitizen provision for 270 days, she said, so that the agency can best determine how to enact it. And it was unclear if the new rules would apply retroactively.

"It may very well just be a notation on the back of the license," Gross said. "I don't want to misconstrue that it's going to be a mark on the front of the license. It may be a restriction on the back of the license saying that it expires."

The new guidelines were authorized as part of legislation that cleared the House and Senate in late November. The driver's-license provisions had been introduced into a Senate bill in mid-November as amendments to a broader transportation bill.

"What you want to do is you want to make sure that everyone driving here is not a threat," said Rep. Rick Geist (R., Altoona), who sponsored the House version. "You don't want somebody driving a load of explosives or picking up a container in the Port of Philadelphia, working for the bad guys."

Some of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks had obtained valid driver's licenses. All of them had entered the country legally.

In addition to commercial driver criminal checks and the noncitizen marker, the new provisions change state law in the following ways:

A driver's license will be issued only to foreigners who furnish documentation proving that they are living in the United States and Pennsylvania legally.

A driver's license will be issued to a noncitizen with an expiration date that matches the expiration of the visa or other immigration documents authorizing U.S. residency. Previously, driver's licenses were issued for four-year periods.

PennDot can automatically invalidate a license once it is notified that a driver has received a license in another state.

A license will not be issued to out-of-state residents, except for federal or state employees and their families.

A driver's license will be issued only to foreigners whose visas are set to expire no earlier than a year from the day they apply for the license. Exceptions will be made for foreign students at U.S. universities.

Brown, the immigration lawyer, said her organization's biggest gripe with the new law is the one-year restriction. "This is really a problem for people like foreign doctors, who usually get temporary one-year medical licenses... . The INS is so slow that by the time they get their documents, they're already down to nine months."

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-702-7805 or