How Georgia's Driver's License Law Turns Latinos into Felons
In some cities in Georgia, Latinos make up 13 percent of the population but 63 percent of arrests for driving without a license, which is considered a felony.
Last year, Julio Hernandez Diaz was on his way to work outside Atlanta when cops arrested him for driving without a license. It was his fourth time stopped without a driver's license. Though he had never committed a crime and had lived in the United States 18 years, the state now considered him a felon, under Georgia law. But since he was an undocumented immigrant, Georgia legislation also prohibited him from getting a license. The state sentenced him to three months in prison, and then immigration officials detained him, claiming he was one of their enforcement priorities, because he was a felon.
Hernandez is among countless immigrants to suffer prison time, fines, and even deportation because of Georgia's driver's license bill, SB 350. The legislation increased penalties for driving without a license, making a first offense punishable with a $1,000 fine and two days in jail, and a fourth offense a felony punishable with up to five years in jail. The bill, which passed in 2008, has disproportionately impacted Latinos and African Americans, according to a report released today by the Advancement Project and Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR).
"Under this act the penalties for driving without a license go above and beyond what we would consider reasonable. In other states, driving without a license is a traffic citation equivalent to a parking ticket—not something that becomes a criminal offense," said Flavia Jimenez, the Advancement Project's Project Director of Immigrant Justice and the author of the report. "Many of these penalties in Georgia are significant enough that they're driving immigrant families and others in communities of color further into poverty. These communities now feel heavily under threat and harassed."
The report found that in Roswell City, Georgia, Latinos (13 percent of the population) made up 63 percent of driver's license arrests between 2011 and 2015. In Fayette County, Latinos represent 6.9 percent of the population but 17 percent of arrests. The third county studied, Houston County, does not divide Latino from white individuals in its arrest tallies so the information was unavailable.
In most of Georgia, where public transportation is nonexistent or severely limited, undocumented individuals have no other choice but to take this legal risk daily, said Ignacio Portillo, a business owner who has lived in the US 16 years but has no papers. Portillo told me he was on his way to a remodeling job last year when a cop pulled him over at an intersection, despite having committed no driving infraction.
It was his second time being stopped for driving without a license, so Portillo had to pay $3,000 total for a ticket and to bond out of jail that day, and was sentenced to ten days in prison. Afterward, he returned to driving.
"I have to drive. I don't have enough money to pay a chauffeur. How am I going to maintain a business and support my family?" said Portillo, who has four children and a wife in Fayetteville, Georgia. "I'm afraid, but I'll keep driving. I have no choice. I have clients, lawyers, and doctors, who ask why I don't just get a driver's license. But I can't since I'm undocumented."
The day after I spoke with Portillo, he was stopped again on his way to work, for having his bright lights on. He was arrested and made to pay a $1,400 bail.
Portillo complained of a phenomenon the report found to be widespread—that police specifically targeted people of color in their stops, charging them thousands of dollars in fines.
"I know many Latinos who've been pulled over. Sixty-eight other Latinos were in court my day getting tickets for having no license, and we all paid $1,500 to $1,800," Portillo told me of his court date last year. "And almost everyone I was put in jail with was Latino."
The report found that "informal interviews and hotline intake forms of multiple individuals across Georgia, who have been targeted by law enforcement agents and police officers, provide evidence of the focus on drivers of color through traffic stops. These individuals also feel as if they are 'sources of revenue' for their local jurisdictions."
And because penalties increase with each additional violation of the law, the researchers calculated that Latinos and African Americans indeed paid a higher portion of such fees.
"In Fayette County, accruing four traffic citations for driving a vehicle without a license over one or two year period can tally up to $9,379 in fines, fees, and bond payments," the researchers wrote.
While Fayette County and Roswell City would not disclose their revenues from SB 350 to researchers, Houston County revealed that it took in $6 million in tickets and bonds from individuals who drove without a license, in the period between 2011 and 2015.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's press office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the impact of SB 350, and the Fayette County Sheriff's Department did not return calls requesting comment about Portillo's case or its arrests of undocumented drivers.
Not only has SB 350 increased monetary penalties, but it has driven up incarceration rates in a state with the fifth-largest prison population, Jimenez noted.
"As the state talks about decreasing incarceration, SB 350 is putting more people into jail," said Jimenez. She did not have specific numbers of the individuals imprisoned for SB 350 in the state.
The bill has also prompted the deportation of many long-time Georgia residents—even individuals who were stopped just once for driving without a license. By analyzing calls to GLAHR's immigration help hotline, researchers found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had detained and deported individuals solely for violating SB 350, even if they fit into none of ICE's priority categories for removal.
"Over the past year, GLAHR has received numerous calls from individuals who have been picked up by ICE from their homes who are not enforcement priorities," the report said. "There have been cases of individuals placed in deportation proceedings that only have driver's license violations."
ICE Spokesman Bryan Cox told me the agency would not deport individuals for misdemeanor traffic offenses unless they had some other factor that was the basis for their removal, but he confirmed that anyone convicted of a felony was a deportation priority.
"While ICE has not been given the opportunity to review the report, the agency is committed to enforcing our nation's immigration laws effectively and sensibly in accordance with federal law and ICE policy," Cox wrote in an email. "As part of the civil immigration enforcement priorities announced by Secretary Johnson in November 2014, ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. This includes aliens convicted of an offense classified as a felony in the convicting jurisdiction, other than a state or local offense for which an essential element was the alien's immigration status."
Eva Cardenas, a community organizer with GLAHR who has witnessed the removal trend, called SB 350 "another tentacle of the deportation machine" that in Georgia includes a wide range of anti-immigrant legislation. The state's most notorious law, the Illegal Immigration and Reform Bill HB 87, adopted in 2011, required police officers to check individuals' identification for their legal status and made it a crime to give rides to undocumented immigrants. A federal judge struck down the harshest provisions (specifically, part of the bill that criminalized driving with undocumented people as "harboring illegal immigrants") in 2013, after immigrant rights groups argued they were unconstitutional.
"Georgia is trying to create a hostile environment that will annoy immigrants to such a degree that they're forced to leave the state," Cardenas told me. "As a woman of color—a 'Mexicana,' even though I have citizenship—I feel this legislation leads to this micro-environment of racial profiling. It's intimidating, even for people with legal status."
But despite Georgia's hostile environment for the immigrant community, many undocumented residents remain in the state, trying to stay in the shadows.
"I can't move my family—our whole lives are here, and my wife's business is here," Portillo said. "I don't have another option than to keep working for my family in this business."
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