Civil rights groups urge lawmakers to change unlicensed driver laws

Latino civil rights organizations are arguing that an eight-year-old law is making felons out of immigrants who drive without a license in Georgia.

The Atlanta-based Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and the Advancement Project from Washington D.C., released a report Wednesday that also says the law’s increased fines for driving without a license forces families who struggle economically deeper into poverty. The civil rights groups are urging lawmakers to revoke the law, although the 2016 General Assembly session ends Thursday and there has been nothing filed to do so.

Senate Bill 350, sponsored by former state Sen. John J. Wiles, R-Marietta, passed the state General Assembly in 2008. The law increased penalties for unlicensed drivers and made the fourth such offense in five years a felony.

Certain people with no legal status are unable to obtain driver’s licenses under Georgia law, but limited public transportation makes it difficult to get around without driving in the state. However, people who have been granted deportation deferrals and work permits under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, are currently receiving driver’s licenses in Georgia.

The government is temporarily not seeking to deport people who qualify for DACA, but they still don’t have legal status, like a legal resident does.

Wiles said he sponsored the legislation after an unlicensed driver struck and killed Cobb County Sheriff’s Deputy Loren Lilly on New Year’s Eve 2006. The former state senator argues that the legislation does not discriminate against any groups but rather is designed to “protect citizens from unlicensed drivers.”

The two civil rights groups disagree and claim the law “was created in particular to look for people to self-deport” or leave the state.

“Some immigrants are not able to produce driver’s licenses, and if they’re arrested for the first time they’re paying between $700 to $1,000,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. “The city of Roswell is charging people $3,500 in bond for the first offense.”

Ignacio Portillo, a contractor, claims his family has suffered severe economic consequences as a result of Georgia’s unlicensed driver laws. Portillo said police have stopped him several times in the past few years and that his fines have increased with each traffic citation.

“What we have found is that it is a racially discriminatory law and it’s having a disproportionate impact on communities of color,” said Flavia Jimenez, senior attorney and project coordinator of immigrant justice for Advancement Project.

Supporters of the legislation argue that the law is not discriminatory in nature but rather seeks to address the risk that unlicensed, and often uninsured, drivers pose.

“As a taxpayer, we’re tired of people who are in this country illegally playing the victim,” said Shawn Hanley, vice chairman of the Georgia Immigration Enforcement Review Board. “I have to drive a four-year-old in my car, and I have to worry about a guy down the street who’s an unlicensed driver and who’s on his fourth ticket in five years and has no insurance.”

Wiles said, “The law simply seeks to punish people who have repeatedly violated the state law of Georgia by driving without a license four times in the last five years. If you want to exercise a driving privilege you must have a driver’s license.”

“You don’t want people to get prosecuted. You want people to follow the law. You don’t want to lock people up.”

Wiles also said neither organization reached out to him when making the report, and said it “lacks any balance.”

This story has been corrected. An earlier version said people with no legal status are unable to obtain driver’s licenses under Georgia law. People who have been granted deportation deferrals and work permits under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, are currently receiving driver’s licenses in Georgia. However, they do not hold legal status in the U.S., like legal residents do.

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