ATLANTA — A Hall County lawmaker’s bill, which would give law enforcement agencies the power to seize cars from illegal immigrants involved in traffic violations, passed the Georgia House on Thursday.
The bill, by Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, was the latest in the General Assembly’s attempts to target illegal immigrants.
"Our federal government has failed to deal with the matter at the border," Mills said. "However, we do have the matter of securing our state laws."
Characterizing the problem as an "epidemic," he added: "We don’t know if
people are from Iraq, Iran, Irania, Jordan — we don’t know where they’re from."
Mills reminded lawmakers that the state views the ability to drive as a privilege, not a right."This General Assembly made the decision years ago that if you’re going to be driving a 3,000-pound bullet around on the state’s highways and streets, you need to be licensed to do that," Mills said. "We took it a step further and said, ‘You better have some insurance because if you hurt somebody, we’re going to ask you to be liable for it.’"
The bill was not without critics, including one lawmaker who questioned the constitutionality of the bill, which was assigned to the Rules committee instead of the Judiciary committee.
"I think there’s some constitutional violations," said state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Atlanta. "And I think it would face a serious and most likely successful challenge based on the Fourth Amendment."
Others claimed the measure is part of a heavy-handed strategy that could also snag legitimate residents and immigrants in its net.
"We do have a broken immigration policy. But we cannot just indiscriminately throw out ideas that hurt Georgians in the process," said state Rep. Randal Mangham, D-Decatur.
He said he doubts there’s a quick way to prove he is legally in the country if he’s caught driving without a license.
"Some of you have driven your cars without a license," Mangham said. "And if you look like you’re from the Ukraine — if you look like you’re foreign — and it’s not clear whether you’re legal or illegal, that is a problem."
Yet supporters, calling it a safety issue, challenged their colleagues to support the plan as a way to prevent wrecks involving illegal immigrants.
"Is not the Georgia and the U.S. Constitution written by and for U.S. citizens? Really, this bill is about protecting my constituents," said state Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill. "We should be protecting our constituents — not ... our potential constituents."
Latino leaders in the state and in Gainesville are clearly opposed to the bill.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said Mills’ proposal was a bad mix of local law enforcement and federal civil issues.
"What we’re doing with this legislation is enacting state penalties for federal violation of civil immigration law," Gonzalez said. "The problem is the unintended consequences. How does one prove they’re a U.S. citizen on the side of the road?"
Gonzalez said the bill could have dire implications for Gainesville’s sizable poultry industry, which relies heavily on immigrant labor. He said Mills has suggested vehicles could be seized from the employers of illegal immigrants who were cited in their cars.
"I think Rep. James Mills is really out of touch with the business interests of Gainesville, and the business community needs to step up and make sure this bill doesn’t go anywhere," Gonzalez said.
Gainesville attorney Arturo Corso said he was "very disappointed to see that James Mills continues to spend so much time trying to target immigrants."
Corso said the law was impractical, with 15,000 traffic citations issued in Hall County alone each year.
"Good, hard-working patrol officers don’t have the time to check the immigration status of 15,000 people a year while they’re on the road," Corso said. "And I know James Mills would never suggest we only check the status of people who look like they’re from another country, because that would be in violation of profiling laws."
Poking fun at a published comment attributed to Mills during his remarks on the House floor Wednesday, Corso said the job for patrol officers "would be too daunting a task, even if an officer were to know there’s no such country as Irania."
While Latino advocates predictably were hotly against the measure, the passage of the bill in the House was met with a cooler response from local law enforcement.
Neither Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic or Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper would say whether they were in favor or against such a law.
"I’d like to reserve comment until I see the bill," said Cronic.
Cronic said he had been approached by Mills about seeking some way of compensating car accident victims who are struck by uninsured motorists, but that he had not taken a position on the proposed legislation.
Said Hooper, "I don’t have an opinion on it one way or the other."
The chief noted that if the bill became law, police would have to set up protocols for road stops and how to seize property through the courts.
"Right now there’s no way we can immediately tell out there on the street whether someone’s legal or illegal," Hooper said. "We would have to develop some protocols as far as determining status."
The measure, which passed by a 104-51 vote, also allows police to take rented and leased vehicles if the owner knew, or "should have known," the driver was an illegal immigrant.
Mills was pleased with the outcome in the House.
"I’m pleased with the broad support," he said. "If elected officials will listen to ordinary citizens, measures like this will pass easily."
Mills said he has been labeled a "racist" for his efforts, but brushed aside the criticism.
The bill now goes to the state Senate.
The Senate passed two measures this month that would outlaw so-called sanctuary cities — where officials are banned from reporting illegal immigrants — and allow prosecutors to level a felony charge against people driving without a valid driver’s license.
A separate bid to make English the state’s official language is still pending in the House. The constitutional amendment fell shy of the 120 House votes it needed this week, but sponsors could revive it.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.