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License red tape plagues immigrants [illegal aliens]

System poses difficulty for many Hispanics trying to get driver's certification

Web posted Jun. 13 at 01:29 AM

By Shannon Womble
Morris News Service

ATLANTA -- Most drivers in Georgia's major cities complain about traffic, but the state's illegal immigrant workers struggle just to get behind the wheel, according to a recent report about problems facing the Latino community.

Araceli Harper, a Savannah community activist, said she's heard of Hispanic workers in the city paying as much as $50 for rides to work each week. Public transportation isn't available in most rural areas, and city bus lines don't always operate early enough for those reporting to construction sites.

She also knows some illegal immigrants who drive cars without licenses or use fake identification.

It's all happening, she said, because Georgia's drivers-license system is too tough.

State law requires new drivers to provide several forms of identification and proof of citizenship in order to maintain accurate driving histories that record motorists' safety on the roads. But Hispanic community leaders want a change in documentation requirements that they say would encourage even illegal workers to learn driving rules and get properly licensed. They also recognize the importance of a license in economic terms. In many cases, it is literally a ticket to employment.

"When you come to the United States you are ignorant. You don't know the law, and they make it very difficult,'' Ms. Harper said. "It's easy to be exploited. And the drivers-license office is real, real picky.''

Officials with the state Department of Public Safety said their strict requirements, which include proper Immigration and Naturalization Service documentation, are in place to prevent identity theft and driving-record fraud. Florida also requires those documents from potential drivers.

In a report commissioned by Gov. Roy Barnes, several Hispanic community leaders contend the document requirements are posing a serious threat to other drivers. As long as the INS documentation requirement stands, immigrants will drive without proper knowledge of traffic laws and likely without insurance, the authors contend.

Last year 226,000 motorists were involved in crashes in Georgia. Of those drivers, 58,802, or 22 percent, weren't carrying a drivers license at the time of the crash. That doesn't mean all of those were illegal immigrants. Georgia Department of Public Safety officials caution the numbers might be skewed because of reporting practices and said the agency doesn't track ethnic information, either.

In 1998, Florida police cited 90,102 motorists either driving without a license or using an improper or expired license. The Florida Department of Public Safety also doesn't record an offender's race in its data collection.

ABOUT 184,000 drivers were cited for failure to have car insurance, according to Florida law enforcement.

The American Automobile Association hasn't taken any stand on the issue but is conducting research on the issue, according to local officials.

"The best thing to do is test them and make sure they know how to read traffic signs and know the law,'' said Salvador Diaz-Verson, chairman and chief executive officer of Diaz-Verson Capital in Atlanta and contributor to the report. "If they don't get licensed, they wind up buying a vehicle and driving it anyway.''

There is no Georgia state law prohibiting an unlicensed driver from buying a car.

In 1996, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated the state's illegal immigrant population at 32,000 people. Although most officials agree the population is rising, it is nearly impossible to accurately monitor the number of illegal residents annually.

"If you eliminate documentation or reduce it, then it is very simple to have many drivers licenses and many driver records,'' said Lt. Al Wilson, assistant troop commander in the driver licensing division in the Department of Public Safety.

"IF WE SUBSTITUTE one documentation with another, I'd want to be sure we weren't providing an avenue for people to create additional driving records for those who haven't been good drivers,'' he said.

It isn't likely the department's requirements would change, Lt. Wilson said.

The department isn't always user-friendly to Hispanics, legal or not, said the Savannah resident active in the Hispanic community. Ms. Harper was sent home twice before finally being issued a license.

"They look at who you are, and because of your color or whatever, they get greedy,'' she said.

Ms. Harper, naturalized as a U.S. citizen more than 10 years ago, was first told her Mexico City birth certificate had to been written in English. She then needed to bring proof of residency, even though her husband was with her.

Mr. Diaz-Verson said Hispanics are often subject to more traffic stops and document inspections by police and other agencies who are checking to see if they are legal residents. It was a complaint heard during the town hall meetings across the state.

"It isn't up to them (licensing departments) to determine who is a legal resident and who isn't,'' said Sue Brown, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Atlanta. "They can call us if they think something might be a problem, and we can investigate.''

She said certain organizations, like the Latin American Association or Mexican Consulate, can help people obtain proper identification records.

Reach Shannon Womble at (404) 589-8424.