Eduardo Samniego speaks against Senate Bill 404 during a protest outside the state Capitol Monday February 24, 2014. The Bill would block Georgia driver licenses for immigrants who don't have legal status in the U.S. but who the government is temporarily allowing to stay and work here for humanitarian reasons. Proponents say the measure would help curb illegal immigration in Georgia.
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

Georgia bill: Ban driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status

The Georgia Legislature is diving back into the contentious debate over illegal immigration with a new initiative that would expand the state’s crackdown.

Co-sponsored by a dozen Republican lawmakers, Senate Bill 404 would deny Georgia driver’s licenses to immigrants who don’t have legal status in the U.S., but have been granted “deferred action,” or permission to temporarily stay and work here for humanitarian reasons. SB 404 would apply to immigrants who were illegally brought here as young children, battered spouses, parents with seriously ill children and crime victims who are serving as witnesses in police investigations. Georgia now permits deferred action recipients to apply for driver’s licenses.

A Senate committee approved SB 404 Monday. Proponents say the measure would help curb illegal immigration in Georgia. Critics are calling it hard-hearted and wrong-headed, saying it would prevent workers from getting to their jobs and contributing to the economy.

In another development Monday, a separate Senate panel approved a proposal to amend Georgia’s Constitution and declare English the state’s official language. Senate Resolution 1031 also mandates that the state’s driver’s license exams be given only in English. The measure would need a two-thirds vote in the Senate and House before it could be placed on the ballot for voter approval.

State lawmakers are pushing these measures as bipartisan immigration legislation remains stalled in Washington. Republican have been under pressure to take action since President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 with 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. Last month, congressional Republicans released a list of principles for revamping the immigration system.

But, amid mounting conservative opposition to some of the GOP principles this month, House Speaker John Boehner said it is unlikely Congress will pass any major immigration legislation this year. Boehner cited distrust that President Barack Obama would fairly carry out immigration laws passed by Congress.

Citing inaction in Washington, Georgia lawmakers have enacted a series of laws aimed at driving out immigrants without legal status. At the heart of the latest debate in Georgia is the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program grants work permits and two-year deportation deferrals to immigrants who were brought here as young children, attended school here and who have not committed felonies.

Many states have enacted laws in reaction to that program, which started in 2012. That same year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, issued an executive order banning state driver’s licenses for deferred action recipients. Nebraska has the same policy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven other states do issue licenses to immigrants without legal status: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

It is unclear how many people Georgia’s legislation would affect. But the federal government has granted deportation deferrals to 16,302 people in Georgia through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program since 2012. And Georgia was home to an estimated 425,000 immigrants without legal status in 2010, according to an estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Republican state Sen. Bill Heath of Bremen is sponsoring the driver’s license measure, Senate Bill 404.

“I don’t believe we should cater to illegal aliens,” Heath, chairman of the Senate’s Government Oversight Committee, said in a prepared statement. “Providing them with a Georgia driver’s license is a privilege that shouldn’t be granted to illegal aliens, but afforded only to lawful residents of this state.”

D.A. King, an advocate for enforcement of U.S. immigration and employment laws, wrote an opinion piece for Georgia newspapers last month, criticizing the state’s practices.

“Ask yourself why Georgia Republicans are silent on rewarding illegal immigration and Georgia’s de facto state level amnesty in an election year?” King wrote in a piece for The (Macon) Telegraph. “Nobody can shift the blame to President Obama if this outrage is allowed to be ignored.”

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said the governor had no comment on SB 404. A spokesman for Republican House Speaker David Ralston said Ralston had not yet reviewed the legislation.

About two dozen immigrant rights activists demonstrated against the legislation outside the state Capitol Monday, carrying signs and chanting “Stop SB 404!”

Lucino Gopar of Atlanta was among the protesters. Gopar’s mother illegally brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 10. The government has granted the Benjamin E. Mays High School graduate a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit, making him eligible for his state driver’s license. He said he needs the license to get to his job at a local shipping warehouse. Gopar is hoping Congress will eventually create a path to legal status for people like him.

“If we have this type of ID or license, we can contribute more to the economy,” he said. “We are trying to help our community, and we are trying to help the state. I don’t see the point of them taking the licenses from us.”

Driver’s licenses also serve as a form of ID for people to get into public buildings and for interacting with law enforcement officials, said Rigoberto Rivera, a Roswell High School graduate who was illegally brought here from Mexico when he was a child. Rivera, who has received deferred action and a state driver’s license, joined Gopar at Monday’s protest.

“Let’s say you need to contact the authorities,” Rivera said. “The ID is the only way you can identify yourself to them.”

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Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this report.