Immigrants with lawful presence defend their driver’s licenses

alopez@macon.comMarch 3, 2014 

When law enforcement pulled over Rosa Perez near Atlanta last month for speeding, she didn’t get nervous or angry.

Perez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Macon, had just been issued a Georgia driver’s license a couple of months earlier, and she was proud to hand it over to the officer who asked for it.

Not having to fear law enforcement was new to her, and her driver’s license made her feel like she is a part of this country, she said.

“You feel like you exist,” she said.

Perez, 28, had been married to a U.S. citizen for nine years and had lived in the country since she was 7 years old, but it was only in October that she was awarded legal authorization to work here. A victim of domestic violence and the mother of four U.S. citizens, she is in the process of petitioning for a visa. Perez was granted deferred action in her case, which allowed her to get a Social Security card and a driver’s license. This visa will allow Perez to adjust her status to lawful permanent resident and eventually to citizen.

Perez and the tens of thousands of immigrants like her in Georgia who have been granted temporary lawful presence by the federal government since 2012 held their breath last week, as state legislators considered Senate Bill 404 that would block them from applying for driver’s licenses.

Senate Bill 404 seemed to die last Wednesday, when it did not pass the General Assembly’s Senate Rules Committee. But immigration reform activists across the state remained vigilant Monday, Crossover Day in the capital, which was the last day a bill could pass the floor of one chamber and go to the other one. An amendment to attach the language of Senate Bill 404 to other legislation failed Monday in the state Senate by a vote of 27-8.

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, sponsored Senate Bill 404 when he found out earlier this year that immigrants granted temporary permission to stay in the U.S. under the federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, had been issued Georgia driver’s licenses.

DACA is a form of prosecutorial discretion used by the Office of Homeland Security and implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 that grants temporary lawful presence in the country to immigrants who were brought to the country when they were children and who are educating themselves and have not committed any felonies.

“DACA recipients have admitted to being in this country illegally,” Heath said in an emailed statement. “I don’t believe we should cater to illegal aliens. Providing them with a Georgia driver’s license is a privilege that shouldn’t be granted to illegal aliens, but afforded only to lawful residents of this state.”

DACA recipients are lawful residents, said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-based immigration attorney. He pointed to the federal legislation known as the Real ID Act of 2005, which allows proof of deferred action as evidence of lawful status in the country for the purposes of receiving driver’s licenses. Kuck said he was ready to file a lawsuit in the event that Senate Bill 404 passed.

The faces behind the issue

Young immigrants who rallied at the state Capitol in opposition to Senate Bill 404 Wednesday afternoon drove to Macon that evening to share their stories with Mercer University students at a panel discussion.

“No change in my immigration status changes the fact that this is the only place that I know and love,” said Raymond Partolan, Mercer’s Student Government Association president and the organizer of Wednesday’s event.

Partolan’s parents brought him to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was a year old. They lived in the country for 10 years on skilled worker visas before being denied permanent residency in 2003. Until November 2012, when Partolan was approved for DACA, he lived in fear of getting caught driving unlicensed. His two younger brothers, on the other hand, were born here and don’t have to worry about their immigration status.

Partolan is a leader in the immigration reform activist community in the state and visited the Capitol last week to protest Senate Bill 404. His Christian faith guides his work, he said at Wednesday’s discussion, and he quoted the Old Testament.

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them,” Partolan said, quoting Leviticus 19:33-37. “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself.”

Lucino Gopar, Eduardo Samaniego, Nina Morales and Dilan Garcia shared their experiences as undocumented immigrants. Samaniego overcame homelessness and became student body president at his high school only to end up serving fast food due to his immigration status. Gopar and Morales similarly were blocked from higher education by having to pay out-of-state tuition.

Partolan is able to attend Mercer thanks to a private institutional scholarship that the university awarded him. Garcia also attends Mercer and is a DACA recipient.

The panelists said Wednesday they were relieved Senate Bill 404 was not likely to pass and that other young immigrants like themselves who arrived when they were children and qualify for DACA would get to keep their driver’s licenses.

Heath said he hoped the bill would discourage undocumented immigrants from coming to Georgia.

For Partolan and Perez who have family and deep roots in the state, leaving is not an option.

“I was raised here,” Perez said. “My kids are from here.”

Perez said she plans on earning a certification that will allow her to work as a translator and is thankful she can contribute to the economy by working and driving legally.

“Life has changed a lot,” she said. “I didn’t have an American ID before, just my Mexican passport. It has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 744-4382.

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