Georgia Driver's License Law Aimed At Undocumented Immigrants Disproportionately Hits People Of Color

Ignacio Portillo, 44, who lives Fayetteville, Georgia, says he doesn’t know how he’d get around without driving. He and his wife have four children, and he uses a van to haul supplies for his construction business.

There’s one problem: Portillo is an undocumented immigrant, and can’t get a driver’s license in Georgia. The state’s stringent laws against driving without a valid license mean that each time he gets behind the wheel, he risks arrest, a steep fine, a potential call to immigration enforcement and, should he be convicted of driving without a license four times, a felony record.

He’s already on strike three. Portillo’s third arrest for driving without a license was on Tuesday, when he said he was pulled over for the brightness of his headlights. Despite the risk, he said he still needs to drive to live his life, which for the past 16 years has been in the U.S.

“It’s scary every time,” Portillo said of driving. “It’s a lot of stress every day.”

The impact of Georgia laws aimed in part at keeping undocumented immigrants off the road goes far beyond people like Portillo. The laws and their heavy financial penalties have disproportionately led to the arrests of black and Latino residents — including U.S. citizens — according to a report released Wednesday by the civil rights groups Advancement Project and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.

“A family could reach up to $9,000 or so in monetary penalties just because of the driver’s license issue,” said Flavia Jimenez, the main author of the report and a senior attorney at Advancement Project. “Some of the families have to sell the little property that they have to meet bail.”

The groups analyzed data from Georgia’s Fayette County, Houston County and Roswell city on arrests for driving without a license or on a suspended or revoked license from June 2011 to June 2015. In all three locations, the researchers found that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately affected by the laws, and that the high cost of penalties was exacerbating poverty in the struggling communities.

The report largely focuses on SB 350, a 2008 Georgia law that makes it a felony to drive without a valid license upon the fourth conviction in a five-year period. Punishment is at least one year in jail. Penalties for initial violations are $500 to $1,000, with a higher cost for subsequent arrests. The bill also requires police to attempt to determine the nationality of individuals convicted of driving without a license.

The report authors emphasized that they support efforts to regulate driving privileges for public safety. But Georgia’s current laws, they said, encourage racial profiling and promote distrust between communities and police.

“This was a law which was popularized because it targeted undocumented Americans but it has targeted poor blacks and poor whites as well.”
Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson

In Fayette County, which includes Fayetteville, blacks made up about two-thirds of the traffic violations for driving without a license, even though they made up about 21 percent of the population, according to the report. Seventeen percent of those arrested were Latinos, who made up only about 7 percent of the county’s population.

The discrepancy was even larger in Roswell, where the report found that 63 percent of those arrested for driving without a valid license were Latinos, even though they made up 13 percent of the population. Houston County data showed that nearly 56 percent of those arrested under the law were black, although black people made up 28 percent of the population.

Law enforcement officials in Fayette County, Houston County and Roswell did not comment for this article.

The fines create significant revenue for the localities, the report said. Adelina Nicholls, director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said there were times when 40 or 50 people were waiting at the local court to settle the same type of violations. 

“It’s outrageous, the amount of the fines,” Nicholls said. “If you calculate that the first is between $700 and $1,000, you can imagine how much money they will receive.”

Houston County collected $6 million in revenue in a four-year period from enforcing the license law, according to the Advancement Project and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. Fayette County and Roswell did not provide that information.  

Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson said the law could be allowing poor people — including whites — to fall through the social safety net. He said his group would use the research to advocate for criminal justice reform.

“This was a law which was popularized because it targeted undocumented Americans, but it has targeted poor blacks and poor whites as well,” Johnson said. “You shouldn’t make public policy aimed at a group of people based on their immigration status.”  

The report recommends a repeal of Georgia’s law, a U.S. Justice Department investigation of traffic enforcement practices, and less collaboration between police and immigration enforcement.

The authors also argue for a way to allow more people to legally obtain driver’s licenses: allow undocumented immigrants to apply for them. Undocumented immigrants in 12 states and the District of Columbia can obtain driver’s licenses, and New York allows them to get municipal IDs. 

“You can argue that the majority of these individuals, if they had an option, would be first in line to get driver’s licenses so they wouldn’t be in fear of getting from one place to another,” Jimenez said.

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