New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 10, 2010
LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. » It was just another suburban fender-bender. A car zoomed into an intersection and braked too late to stop at a red light. The Georgia woman driving it, a U.S. citizen, left with a wrecked auto, a sore neck and a traffic fine.
But for Felipa Leonor Valencia, the Mexican woman who was driving the Jeep that was hit that day in March, the damage went far beyond a battered bumper. The crash led Valencia, an illegal immigrant who did not have a valid driver's license, to 12 days in detention and the start of deportation proceedings -- after 17 years of living in Georgia.
Like Valencia, an estimated 4.5 million illegal immigrants nationwide are driving regularly, most without licenses, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Only three states -- New Mexico, Utah and Washington -- currently issue licenses without proof of legal residence in the United States.
Many states have adopted tough new laws to prevent illegal immigrants from driving, while expanding immigration enforcement by the state and local police. As a result, at least 30,000 illegal immigrants who were stopped for common traffic violations in the last three years have ended up in deportation, Department of Homeland Security figures show. The numbers are rapidly increasing, aggravating tensions in the national debate over immigration.
The tensions seem likely to persist. The Senate may take up a bill next week that would give legal status to some illegal immigrant students. Its fate is uncertain, and prospects appear dim for a controversial overhaul, supported by President Barack Obama, that would give legal status to 11 million illegal immigrants. In the absence of federal action, states are stepping in and trying their own solutions.
In Georgia, voters have been worried about unlicensed illegal immigrants whose driving skills are untested and who often lack insurance, including some who caused well-publicized accidents. Lawmakershave tightened requirements to keep illegal immigrants from obtaining licenses and license plates, and have increased penalties for driving without them.
"There are certain things you can't do in the state of Georgia if you are an illegal immigrant," said state Sen. Chip Rogers, a Republican who was a prime mover behind some of the traffic measures. "One of them is, you can't drive."
Many Georgia counties have begun to cooperate formally with the Department of Homeland Security, so that illegal immigrants detained by the local police are turned over more consistently to federal immigration authorities.
Still, according to The Times' analysis, 200,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia are driving to work daily. For them, the new laws mean any police stop, whether for a violation that caused an accident, or for a broken taillight or another driver's mistake, can lead to deportation. Since 2006, thousands of immigrants, mostly from Latin America, have been deported from Georgia after traffic violations, often shaking up long-settled families.
The stepped-up enforcement has been applauded by many citizens. It has also antagonized the fast-growing Hispanic communities in and near Atlanta, where residents say the police are singling them out for traffic stops.
Illegal immigrants say they continue to risk driving without a license in order to keep their jobs.
"We have to work to support our kids, so we have to drive," Valencia said in Spanish, after she was released on a $7,500 bond in late October from an immigration detention center in Alabamato begin her legal fight against deportation. "If we drive, we get stopped by the police. The first thing they ask is, 'Can I see your license?' 'Don't have one? Go to jail.' And from jail to deportation."
Not a few unlicensed Hispanic drivers are traveling the chronically congested roads here in Gwinnett County, a commuter destination northeast of Atlanta. Years of growth resulted in spreading subdivisions and state highways that converge at vast intersections. Public bus routes are few. To get around the county, you have to go by car.
After several high-profile crimes committed by illegal immigrants, the sheriff, Butch Conway, a blunt-spoken lawman who rides motorcycles and breeds horses in his spare time, made it his goal to reduce their population in his jail and his county.
"Just the fact that these people committed serious crimes when they should not have been in the country to begin with," Conway said, "I think that was an insult to the people of Gwinnett."
He enrolled the detention center here in Lawrenceville, the county seat, in a program with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency known as ICE. Under the program, known as 287 (g), 18 of his deputies were trained to question suspects about their immigration status when they arrive at the jail. The deputies place holds, known as detainers, on immigrants they determine to be here illegally, so when the inmates are released from the jail they can be turned over directly to ICE.
The agreement with ICE specifies Conway is to focus on removing "criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety or a danger to the community." The sheriff says that should include those stopped for driving without a license.
"I find it offensive that they just thumb their nose at our laws and operate vehicles they are not licensed to operate," he said, "on top of the fact that they are here illegally."
When some Gwinnett County residents explain why they support a crackdown on illegal immigrants, one case they cite is that of Celso Campos Duartes. Campos, a Mexican, accumulated at least five moving violations in five years, including a hit-and-run accident, before he was turned over to ICE for deportation last month through the county jail 287(g) program.
One afternoon in October 2005, Campos was driving his Ford compact down a county road just as Aubrey Sosebee, an 82-year-old retiree, reached the black mailbox at the end of his driveway.
"The house sits way off the road, and that was his exercise every day, to walk up to get the mail and then walk back," said Rusty Sosebee, 59, one of Sosebee's sons.
Campos struck Sosebee, knocking him to the pavement. Witnesses told the police Campos tried to turn his vehicle and leave but several drivers blocked his path. Campos sprinted into nearby woods, where police search dogs found him hours later.
Three of Sosebee's children, who gathered recently to recount the accident, could not recall the events without breaking down.
"He knows all of the illegal actions that he has taken," Rhonda Neely, 49, Sosebee's daughter, said of Campos. "He's more concerned with getting away and not getting caught than with my dad's life, laying there on the road, the person he just ran over."
Campos, though sober, was driving without a license and with plates from another vehicle. Although insurance is mandatory in Georgia, he had none. Aubrey Sosebee received no compensation from Campos for his medical care.
Sosebee never recovered from the head injury he suffered in the fall, his son Rusty said. He remained disoriented, his son said, and four months later he died.
Convicted of leaving the scene of an accident, Campos served 26 months in the county jail. But at the end of his sentence, he walked away. He was arrested two more timesfor traffic offenses.
After the Sosebees learned in May, to their disbelief, that Campos was still in the country, they contacted the news media. The furor ensured that ICE would not let Campos slip away again.
In an interview in October in the Gwinnett County Detention Center, Campos, now 37, was impassive and unapologetic. "I ran to protect my life," he said, speaking in Spanish at a jailhouse visiting booth. "The accident had already happened, there was nothing I could do to avoid it."
But Campos did not dispute his eventual deportation. The residents of Georgia "have every right to object to people who drive without a license."
While traffic deaths involving illegal immigrants like Campos have galvanized public opinion, it is not clear that they are increasing, even as the illegal immigrant population has surged during the last decade.
There has been no surge in the percentage of Hispanic drivers killed inaccidents in recent years, federal highway safety data show. What the data do show is that Hispanics who are involved in fatal crashes are far less likely than other drivers to have a valid license.
About 80 percent of illegal immigrants are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group.
Looming over cases like Campos' is the question of whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses in the first place.
Highway safety and auto insurance experts argue licensing requires drivers to pass tests and creates an official record of their performance on the road. Licensed drivers can also be made to buy insurance.
"When you are licensed, you have proven you have some ability to drive and know the basic safety rules," said David Snyder, vice president of the American Insurance Association.
Opponents focus on a different set of issues, arguing that a license is an identity document that allows unauthorized immigrants to move about the country freely and to gain public benefits.
"Giving someone here illegally a driver's license is much more than giving them the privilege of driving," said D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, a group created in the name of a Georgia teenager who was killed in 2000 by an illegal immigrant driver. "It is giving them the keys to the kingdom."
King's side is winning. Since 2006, six states that once allowed illegal immigrants to obtain licenses have changed their laws, leaving only three. Susana Martinez, the Republican governor-elect of New Mexico, has pledged to revise license laws there to deny licenses to illegal immigrants.
Georgia has never given licenses to immigrants who are here illegally. In 2008, state legislatorsincreased the penalties for driving without a license, starting with 48 hours of mandatory jail time for a first offense and fines amounting to $700.
Now, many more unlicensed immigrants are going to jail -- and from there are being detained by immigration authorities. Some are offenders like Campos. Many others are average drivers like Valencia.
"I would like to be able to get a license, but I am unable to do so," Valencia told a state judge, speaking through an interpreter in Spanish, when she appeared on Oct. 6 in a Lawrenceville courtroom for the no-license citation she received at the accident scene.
On March 11, the day the speedingChevy hit Valencia's vehicle, she was barely a mile from the home she owns in a Gwinnett County development. She was on her way to pick up her daughter, Crystal, 16, at high school to take her to a doctor's appointment.
Valencia's 2000 Jeep Cherokee was legally registered, inspected and insured. She had a driver's license she had obtained in North Carolina in 2003, when that state still granted them without proof of United States residency. It expired in 2008.
After coming to Georgia from an ox-and-plow farming village in Mexico, Valencia had a 12-year career at a fast-food restaurant in a suburban mall, rising from hamburger flipper to cashier to assistant manager. Among her most carefully preserved possessions are two diplomas for the company's management training courses.
Valencia, a single mother, has raised Crystal, a U.S. citizen born in Atlanta, and an American niece, now 7, whose mother died in childbirth.
With the help of a lawyer, Valencia navigated the court hearing and was ready to pay her fine and go home. But at the last minute, the judge ordered her to be fingerprinted at the Gwinnett County Detention Center.
"Oh, no, my God, that's it," she thought. "I'm going to jail."
When she arrived to give her fingerprints, a 287(g) deputy asked for her immigration papers. When she had none to offer, she was sent to immigration detention in Gadsden, Ala.
Crystal was distraught, frantically texting her mother and scouring the county court website for information.
"She is the only person that's been there for me," Crystal said, dazed, at a relative's house one night while her mother was in the county jail. "She shows me what decisions to make, like keep going to school, do good in school, don't drop out."
Crystal has been preparing to go to college to study medicine, and she could not conceive of moving to Mexico. "To begin with," she said, "I really don't know that much Spanish."
"I think there's some sad stories out there, no doubt," Conway said. "But my job is not taking action on sad stories."
To date, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has signed agreements for 287(g) programs with 72 communities across the country. It is also rolling out a more ambitious program called Secure Communities, giving local police nationwide access to the Department of Homeland Security's database of fingerprints. Immigrants are checked for their legal status when they are booked.
Senior ICE officials have established priorities for these programs, with the highest being deportation of criminals convicted of major drug offenses and violent acts. Traffic violations are not among the top priorities.
Conway takes a different position: "If they're here illegally in the United States, they should be deported regardless of the charge."
The results of the Gwinnett County 287(g) program reflect the sheriff's view. During its first year, which ended Nov. 16, immigration detainers were placed on 3,034 inmates, 93 percent of them Latino. Of a total of 6,662 charges those inmates faced, 21 percent were for ICE's high-priority crimes, like aggravated assault and child molestation. But 45 percent were for traffic violations other than driving under the influence, including 469 detainees held only for driving without a license.
The impact in this area has been deep. Vanessa Kosky, the defense lawyer who represented Valencia, said her young practice has been overwhelmed with cases of Hispanic immigrants arrested for driving without a license. To avoid deportation, they have clogged the courts to fight charges they once would have dispatched by paying a fine.
"These are not horrific drivers," Kosky said. "These are not DUI's. These are not people who are putting people in danger."
Hispanic leaders said immigrants are learning to avoid the police. Latino restaurants have lost business as their patrons choose to stay home. Attendance at Catholic churches dropped when police set up traffic checkpoints nearby.
"It's like a persecution," said Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, the auxiliary bishop of Atlanta. "These laws only affect one group: the Latino community."
Law enforcement officials point to a sharp drop this year in arrests for driving without a license. Some unlicensed immigrants are car-pooling, and some are moving elsewhere in Georgia.
"I mean, that's success," Conway said. "That's the point of the program, to remove illegal aliens from Gwinnett County."