Unlicensed driving arrests down in Cobb, Gwinnett

Cobb and Gwinnett are the only counties in metro Atlanta that participate in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g). Hall and Whitfield counties and the Georgia Department of Public Safety also participate. The program trains deputies to perform some of the functions of an immigration officer and enables them to screen jail inmates to determine their immigration status. Inmates who are in the country illegally are handed over to ICE to start deportation proceedings.

Motorists who face a misdemeanor charge for driving without a license on a first offense in Georgia risk being deported if they are caught in a county that participates in 287(g). Illegal immigrants can't qualify for a driver's license in Georgia.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said that since his county joined the program in November 2009, only about 1,498 people have been jailed for driving without a license (through May 21). During the same time frame the previous year, about 3,530 people were jailed for unlicensed driving.

"I would have to credit 287(g) with that drop," Conway said on Friday, adding that he believes the roads are now safer. "There are increased repercussions to being arrested."

Cobb County has seen arrests under the code section for unlicensed driving plummet during the first five months of this year compared to last year, from 1,224 to 850. A spokeswoman for Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren said it's impossible to exactly pinpoint the cause, but the sheriff believes 287(g) has played a role in the decline.

"Does [Warren] feel 287(g) has been effective in helping to reduce the incidences of people driving without a driver's license? Yes," said Chief Deputy Lynda Coker.

Hall County, which signed a 287(g) agreement in 2008, also went from a peak of 1,312 violations in 2007 to just 404 violations last year, the Gainesville Times reported last month.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Latino Association of Elected Officials, said illegal immigrants haven't left these counties. They are just finding ways to get around without risking arrest, such as walking, bicycling, taking the bus or being more vigilant about where they drive.

People are texting warnings to one another about areas of heavy police enforcement and road blocks, he said. Spanish radio station disc jockeys are also broadcasting that information.

"It's not that I'm an advocate for people to drive without a license," Gonzalez said. "People should have a license. But the fact of the matter is undocumented immigrants don't have access because of their immigration status and public transit is not an option in many of these areas."

Rev. Antonio Mansogo said his church, Ministerio Pentecostal de Atlanta in Norcross, owns a bus and has a volunteer driver who is devoted full-time to help parishioners run errands and attend church.

"As a good pastor, we are very concerned about our people, so what we are doing now is a prevention approach," Mansogo said.