Coalition pushes licenses for unauthorized immigrants in Georgia

Proposed legislation faces difficult battle, heavy opposition
House Bill 833 would give Georgia undocumented immigrants the opportunity to apply for a new kind of driver’s license. (AJC file photo)

House Bill 833 would give Georgia undocumented immigrants the opportunity to apply for a new kind of driver’s license. (AJC file photo)

It takes just 15 minutes for an agricultural worker based in Hall County to drive from her home to her work site, and another 115 minutes to make the trip back. It’s a commute that, by her own account, represents the most anxiety-filled part of her day.

An unauthorized immigrant from Mexico, she is barred from getting a driver’s license by Georgia law, which also makes it a crime to operate a vehicle if unlicensed (repeated violations can lead to a felony record). And in counties such as Hall where local sheriffs have certain cooperative partnerships with immigration enforcement authorities, being caught driving without a license can leave immigrants like her facing the threat of detention and deportation.

“Every day I get in my car to go to work and I wonder if I’ll be able to get back home to my 3-year-old son,” said the woman, who did not want her name used due to her immigration status. The AJC agreed to withhold her name so she could speak publicly about her experience.

Over the summer, a coalition of local nonprofits and advocacy groups launched the Freedom to Drive campaign, a show of support for a piece of legislation that seeks to expand access to Georgia driving privileges to people like the Hall County worker. House Bill 833 was introduced in the Georgia House during the past legislative session. It calls for the creation of a new kind of driver’s license, dubbed a driver’s card, that would be open to state residents regardless of their immigration status. Licensing requirements, including passing the driver’s exam, would remain the same.

“This bill is very important because there are so many people who are unable to get driver’s licenses, whose lives and livelihoods are impacted … And ultimately, that also impacts the economy of Georgia,” said state Rep. Marvin Lim. Lim, who represents an immigrant-heavy district in Gwinnett County, is one of six House members sponsoring the bill, all Democrats.

Currently pending before the House Committee on Motor Vehicles, HB 833 faces an uphill climb in the Republican-controlled Legislature, even as surging Hispanic and Asian populations in the state could add to the bill’s relevancy.

Granting driving credentials to people who don’t reside in the country legally means that “you’re essentially giving legitimacy to something that is already illegitimate … it is an inherent contradiction,” said Marci McCarthy, who leads the DeKalb County Republican Party.

Former state Rep. Jeff Jones, who served as vice chairman of the Motor Vehicles Committee from 2019 to 2020, said the bill is “so preposterous” that he assumed it was a “campaign ploy.”

“I predict a very negative reaction from Georgians when they learn that (HB 833) aims to document the undocumented,” Jones R-Brunswick, said in an email to the AJC.

In other states, GOP opposition to similar bills has hinged partly on concerns that making unauthorized immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses could lead to fraudulent attempts to vote in elections. That’s likely to be a sticking point in Georgia as well, where Republican lawmakers recently pushed through an expansive new election law that includes some restrictions on voting.

“I think (HB 833) is going to be dead on arrival,” McCarthy said. “I wish the Democrats would put this much effort into voter ID overall in Georgia.”

Possible benefits of expansion

Despite the opposition, advocates say expanded access to driver’s licenses is needed due to the lack of viable public transit alternatives in vast swaths of the state.

“In a place like Georgia, not being able to drive is not being able to eat,” said Kavi Vu, spokeswoman for the Asian American Advocacy Fund, one of the groups advocating for the adoption of HB 833.

Though unauthorized immigrants would be among those most directly impacted by HB 833, other marginalized groups with limited access to identification documents — including survivors of domestic violence, homeless people and formerly incarcerated individuals — could benefit as well, advocates say.

The legislation could also yield public safety benefits and would allow for better access to health care, including vaccinations against COVID-19, supporters say.

A report published this year by the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found that expanding access to driver’s licenses could have a positive impact on road safety and generate new revenue for state coffers from vehicle registrations, licensing fees, and motor fuel taxes.

“As far as people who drive automobiles on the road, you want them to know what the rules of the road are, and you want them to be able to go through the process of becoming credentialed to drive,” David Schaefer, research director at the institute, said. “We think that (HB 833) really facilitates that.”

According to a report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 1 in 5 fatal car crashes involve an unlicensed or invalidly licensed driver. Those drivers are also 10 times more likely to leave the scene of an accident than validly licensed drivers. And per GBPI, giving all immigrant drivers the opportunity to become licensed would mean more of those drivers would take out car insurance than is currently the case. That could lower premiums for everyone else.

In California, after over 1 million undocumented immigrants were able to apply for driver’s licenses, hit-and-runs were reduced by 10%, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Similar policy changes in Connecticut contributed to hit-and-runs in certain cities there declining by 15%, according to official data — leading to millions of dollars saved in related expenses.

GBPI estimates that, within the first three years of implementation, about 40% of the state’s 400,000 unauthorized immigrants would seek a license — that’s nearly 165,000 people.

Immigration advocates say licenses would also represent a boon for mental health.

“A lot of our community would want nothing more than to be able to drive with peace of mind, without that stress of having to every morning leave their house to go to work and not knowing if they are going to be stopped and and referred to ICE,” said Vanesa Sarazua, founder of the Gainesville-based Hispanic Alliance GA. “The emotional turmoil that we have is real … And it’s an impact in our community that is seldom spoken about.”

Some hesitancy on both sides

Garnering support for the legislation will be challenging.

Some states, like Maryland, that allowed unauthorized immigrants to obtain a legal ID found that hundreds of licenses were issued to applicants who submitted counterfeit documentation. In 2006, Tennessee ended its licensing program for unauthorized immigrants, after federal investigations showed that some applicants used fraudulent documents, and in some cases also bribed state workers, to secure driving privileges.

In other parts of the country, some states’ expanded driver’s license programs were used by immigration enforcement authorities to obtain participating immigrants’ personal information, leading to arrests and deportations.

To get the support of the immigrant community, sponsors of the Georgia bill have included language that would prevent routine information sharing with ICE, stipulating that a federal court order would need to be produced for any data to be released.

Schaefer says that provision would be key in not only protecting private information, but also in getting members of the unauthorized community to sign up for licenses in the first place.

“If you are going to encourage people to apply, they have to know that their information will not be used against them,” he said.

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.