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Georgia Law Targets Black, Latino Drivers, Groups Say

by Griselda Nevarez /
Image: Belle Doss
Belle Doss lays out seating charts on the desks of state representatives in preparation for the opening of the Georgia General Assembly Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Religious freedom, education, and gambling bills top the 2016 agenda of the state's legislative session which begins Monday. (AP Photo/David Goldman) David Goldman / AP

Ignacio Portillo, 44, was driving to work Tuesday morning in Georgia when a Fayette County sheriff's deputy pulled him over. He was arrested for not having a driver’s license, which he cannot obtain because he is in the U.S. without legal permission.

Portillo, owner of a home remodeling business, was released two hours after his arrest. The Mexican immigrant and father of four paid a $1,400 ticket and was given a court date, where he’ll face a judge and possible jail time.

“He (the sheriff) said he stopped me because one of the front lights of my truck was dimmer than the other one,” Portillo said in an interview with NBC News Latino. “But at the time the sun was already out, so I don’t know what he was referring to.”

This is the third time Portillo has been arrested for driving without a license in the last four years. He said all three times he was stopped for minor traffic violations. In 2015, the last time he was arrested, he paid $2,200 in fines, served 10 days in jail and served one year probation.

Portillo’s story is one of dozens highlighted in a new report on the impact of a 2008 Georgia law that raised penalties for people who drive without a license or on a suspended or revoked license. The law made the infractions a felony, making the immigrants deportable under U.S. immigration law.

Critics say the law was intended to crack down on illegal immigration. In addition, it is having a disproportionate impact on Latinos and African Americans, regardless of their citizenship status, the report said.

Flavia Jimenez, the report’s author, said she believes the penalties and fees people receive under the driver’s license law exceed the severity of the traffic infraction and have a detrimental impact on low-income and working-class families.

“We know of cases of family members who as a result of this law have been driven into poverty and have been scrambling to try to figure out how to keep the lights on and keep food on the table,” said Jimenez, who’s a senior attorney and director of immigrant justice at the Advancement Project.

Former Georgia state Sen. John Wiles said he introduced the legislation after a sheriff’s deputy from his district was killed in a car accident involving an undocumented immigrant who was driving without a license.

Wiles said his bill was not meant to go after undocumented immigrants or any other specific group but rather raise the penalties for repetitive driver’s license convictions as a way to deter people without a license from driving.

“I know everyone looks at a bill for disproportionate impact,” Wiles said. “But my bill wasn’t meant to have disproportionate impact. It was to save people’s lives. I just didn’t want to have to go to another funeral and have the widow crying in my arms because her husband was killed by an unlicensed driver.”

The law created a felony category for driving without a license or one that had been suspended or revoked. Drivers in Georgia are hit with monetary penalties that range from $500 to $1,000 in their first driver's license conviction.

That increases with subsequent infractions, sometimes reaching up to $5,000. The law mandates that those who get four driver’s license convictions in a five-year period be charged with a felony and a year in jail.

Flavia's group teamed with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights to work on the report. Both groups submitted open records requests for data on arrests of unlicensed drivers from June 2011 through June 2015 in three jurisdictions: Fayette County, Houston County and Roswell City.

The Georgia governor's office and the Fayette County Sheriff's Office and Roswell City officials did not respond to email and phone call requests for comment from NBC News Latino.

The data, according to the report, doesn’t include the number of unlicensed drivers who were ticketed and fined.

In Fayette County, the report shows there were disproportionately high numbers of Latino and African Americans who were arrested for driving without a license or on a suspended or revoked license.

African Americans and Latinos made up 21 and 7 percent of the county’s population respectively, but account for 66 percent and 17 percent of all driver’s license violations respectively.

The data for Houston County shows African Americans made up 28 percent of the county’s population but 56 percent of all people arrested for violating the state’s driver’s license law. The county doesn’t maintain data on Latino drivers, according to the report.

In Roswell City, Latinos are disproportionately fined and arrested for driver’s license violations more than any other racial and ethnic group, according to the report. Latinos made up 13 percent of the city’s population but 63 percent of all people who were arrested for driving without a license or on a suspended or revoked license.

The report also found undocumented immigrants have been picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at their homes after spending time in jail for driver’s license convictions. Some individuals were taken into ICE custody and placed into deportation proceedings.

Others, like Portillo, were released because they weren’t considered a priority for deportation under a memorandum that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson released in 2014. The memorandum was part of the immigration executive action President Barack Obama after House Republicans blocked efforts to pass immigration reform legislation that year.

Jimenez said she knows of one case where an individual was deported as a result of a driver’s license conviction.

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE, said he couldn’t comment on the report because ICE hadn’t been given the opportunity to review it. The agency “is committed to enforcing our nation’s immigration laws effectively and sensibly in accordance with federal law and ICE policy," Cox said.

He cited the 2014 memo and said: “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.”

Jimenez said she’s asking Georgia lawmakers to “put the brakes” on the state’s driver’s law and consider lowering the penalties for driver’s license convictions, as well as pass legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Currently, undocumented immigrants can obtain driver’s licenses in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

Federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit law enforcement that disproportionately impacts minorities.

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