KSU student who stirred immigration debate heads to traffic court

A Kennesaw State University student whose arrest prompted wide and spirited debates over illegal immigration issues is expected to be in court Thursday.

However, whatever the outcome in Jessica Colotl's traffic court case, it is unlikely to tamp down the controversy that flared when the 22-year-old was jailed and nearly deported in May.

Colotl faces two misdemeanor charges of driving without a license and impeding the flow of traffic. Cobb County Solicitor Barry Morgan on Wednesday refrained from discussing what could happen at trial.

"As the case is still pending, I am limited in what I can ethically say," Morgan said in an e-mail. "We will deal with all issues presented in court."

A conviction would not affect Colotl's immigration status, since a federal immigration judge has ordered that she be deported after she graduates in the spring, according to her immigration attorney, Charles Kuck.

Jerome Lee, the attorney handling Colotl's traffic court case, said he will ask that the charge of driving without a license be dismissed, because Colotl recently obtained a driver's license. She was able to do so because her deportation was deferred.

Lee said Georgia law regarding persons charged with driving without a license states that  "if such person produces in court a valid driver's license issued by this state to such person, he or she shall not be guilty of such offenses."

"Following normal immigration procedure and law, she is now eligible for a work permit, she has a Social Security card now and she has a driver's license," Lee said.

Her attorneys hope that last-minute negotiations with the county solicitor will allow Colotl to pay a fine and avoid a trial.

"I'd rather avoid the public spectacle," Lee said.

Like it or not, Colotl has drawn intense scrutiny from the public. Her case has spurred the debate about illegal immigrants driving while unlicensed and enrolling in public colleges.

Pro-immigrant advocates say that people like Colotl -- an "A" student whose ambition is to become a lawyer -- should be given a path to citizenship, not run out of the country. Colotl's parents brought her to the U.S. when she was about 10 years old.

"It's not clear to me that she is a scofflaw or someone that is trying to do the wrong thing," said Michael Olivas, a University of Houston Law Center professor who is an expert on immigration law. "The failure of comprehensive immigration reform means she has no means of adjusting her immigration status."

Lee Fleck, a Roswell citizen who actively follows current events, is among those who find Colotl's actions inexcusable.

"I don't care about her, she's abused the system for too many years,"  Fleck said.

Illegal immigrants cannot qualify for a driver's license in Georgia. And motorists who face a misdemeanor charge for driving without a license on a first offense risk being deported if they are caught within the jurisdiction of certain counties.

The federal government has been expanding immigration enforcement programs involving local jails that are aimed at deporting criminal immigrants. These include the 287(g) program and Secure Communities. Most metro Atlanta counties are participating in one or both of these programs.

Cobb County -- where Colotl was arrested -- is among a handful of counties in Georgia participating in 287(g), a local-federal partnership that lets deputies check inmates' immigration status. Inmates who are in the country illegally are handed over to federal immigration officers after their cases are adjudicated. Immigration and Customs Enforcement then initiates deportation proceedings. Immigrants still have the opportunity to go before immigration judges to plead their cases.

The stated priority of the 287(g) program is to deport illegal immigrants who are dangerous criminals, with an emphasis on deporting violent felons. However, many of the inmates handed over to ICE for possible deportation were jailed for possible driving infractions.

In Cobb, about 60 percent of the 3,159 inmates identified as being in the country illegally between January 2009 and March 2010 were there for traffic offenses. In Gwinnett, another 287(g) county, 42 percent of the 2,602 inmates turned over to ICE this year were jailed for traffic-related offenses.

That's okay by Steven Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies who supports vigorous immigration enforcement.

"If you are in the U.S. illegally, when we catch you breaking the law, then you need to go," Camarota said. "She [Colotl] should be made to leave, because she is not supposed to even be in the country."

However, organizations that support a path to legalization say that local immigration enforcement programs such as 287(g) are misguided.

"By focusing on people like Jessica and those who are being pulled over for minor traffic violations, law enforcement resources are being diverted and this leads to less safe communities," said Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project for the ACLU of Georgia.

The fact that Colotl was enrolled in a public college was another sore spot for many Georgians. Last month, a public outcry over Colotl's case prompted the Board of Regents to ban illegal immigrants from Georgia's top public colleges starting next fall.

On the other side of that issue, about 30 pro-immigrant protesters rallied Wednesday during the regents’ monthly meeting. They chanted “don’t hate, educate” and carried signs urging passage of legislation that would provide an easier path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who, like Colotl, were brought to this country as children.

Some believe the regents didn't go far enough. State Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would ban illegal immigrants from enrolling in any Georgia public college.

"This case in particular has brought that issue to the forefront," Rice said. "You can poll across the state. People do not favor providing public benefits to illegal immigrants."

- Staff writer Laura Diamond contributed to this article.