Like many young adults, Diana Paola Vela-Martinez’s life blossomed when she received her driver’s license. The world truly opened up to her then.
Vela-Martinez was able to travel to places she only dreamed of as a little girl. New experiences and opportunities emerged.
The sense of freedom that comes with a license to drive is almost a rite of passage in this country, as Americana as blues music.
“Because of driving, I can get to work and to home,” said Vela-Martinez, 19, a Gainesville resident and pre-med student at the University of North Georgia. “Without a driver’s license, it would even be a struggle to go to school. It allows me to expand beyond Gainesville, to lend a helping hand throughout Georgia, not just in my area.”
Vela-Martinez is an immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States at the age of 4. But without citizenship or permanent resident status, her prospects for work and higher education seemed limited.
That all changed in 2012 when she was able to obtain her driver’s license after being granted protected immigrant status through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
But Republicans in Georgia have renewed calls to end this program and limit its benefits — including banning driver’s licenses for DACA recipients — after an undocumented immigrant who had been deported several times and was a convicted felon allegedly murdered a woman along a busy, tourist-filled waterfront in San Francisco earlier this month.
Patchwork of enforcement
DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who came to America before 16 years of age and prior to June 2007 to receive two-year work permits and a reprieve from deportation, subject to renewal. It does not provide a path to citizenship.
More than 650,000 applications have been approved under this program as of March 31, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
And close to 21,000 individual applications have been accepted in Georgia, and another 8,000 renewals have been approved.
About 84,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia were eligible for protection under DACA at its inception three years ago, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
But the benefits DACA brings, as well as enforcement of federal immigration laws, differ from state to state, county to county and city to city, keeping those like Vela-Martinez in a state of flux and limbo.
“It highlights the problem in the fact that our immigration system is broken,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “And the immigration responsibility, frankly, lies in Congress, and not states and counties or municipalities who are trying to do immigration law on their own.”
A national debate about so-called “sanctuary cities” was sparked when the woman was murdered in San Francisco on July 1.
Many law enforcement agencies in cities and counties, including some around metro Atlanta, for example, do not comply with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates who are in the country illegally beyond their scheduled release dates so that they can be taken into custody for deportation proceedings.
The alleged killer, who was not a DACA recipient, was released because San Francisco routinely does not comply with detainer requests or notify ICE of pending releases.
According to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, when it arrests an individual who was not born in the United States, the inmate’s immigration status is checked.
Hall County has a large immigrant population thanks in large part to the area’s thriving poultry industry, where many of these individuals work.
If an immigrant is found to be undocumented and here illegally, the Sheriff’s Office then notifies ICE and a determination is made about whether to place a detainer on that person based on immigration enforcement priorities.
ICE prioritizes deportations based on perceived threats to national security and public safety.
Once inmates conclude their cases in Hall County, either by making bond or adjudication, they are taken to an ICE intake center in Atlanta.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is an authorized ICE detention facility through the Department of Homeland Security, and officials said they are allowed to house ICE detainees for up to 72 hours.
But cooperation with detainer requests and notifications of pending releases are strictly voluntary.
“Our nation’s immigration system is broken and we desperately need our federal government to find a long-term solution both legislatively and in the way of enforcement,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.
Fight in Georgia
A bill proposed last fall by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, aims to ban driver’s licenses for those immigrants protected by DACA, such as Vela-Martinez.
Though it has not been passed into law, the proposal was meant to counter President Barack Obama’s executive action in November to expand the deferred deportation program to include more immigrants.
Twenty-six states, including Georgia, filed suit to stop this executive action from proceeding, arguing the White House had overstepped its constitutional authority.
And in May, a federal appeals court in New Orleans rejected the Obama administration’s request for the expanded program to proceed.
The program could have prevented the deportation of up to 5 million undocumented individuals and allow those who have lived in the United States for more than five years, or are parents of American children, to remain here legally and, in some cases, obtain work permits.
In Georgia alone, about 116,000 families could have been impacted had the new order taken effect.
Legal experts believe this proposal could now be tied up for years, with the possibility that the Supreme Court might ultimately have to resolve the issue.
The original DACA program is not affected, however, and last week McKoon proposed additional measures on top of banning driver’s licenses to crack down on illegal immigrants in Georgia, including barring them from law practice and teaching in schools.
He also wants to develop a public registry of those undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.
“There’s only so much a state can do,” Collins said, adding that he has supported a Congressional proposal to ban federal grant money for local governments that do not enforce federal immigration laws. “I think it’s not surprising on the local front. It’s understandable …”
McKoon said his latest proposals were prompted by the woman’s killing in San Francisco and that he hoped it would draw attention to the possibility of a similar incident occurring in Georgia.
“It’s a shame that Sen. Josh McKoon is jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon and utilizing the tragedy that happened in San Francisco for cheap political gain,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “It’s wrong-headed. It’s mean-spirited. And it’s not where Georgia needs to be.”
The immigration debate often pits undocumented individuals who are trying to enter the American fold against those here illegally who commit violent crime.
Vela-Martinez graduated from Gainesville High School in 2014 and now actively works to register voters through a non-partisan canvassing drive. And she hopes her education will allow her to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
She has publicly spoken out against McKoon’s proposal to ban driver’s licenses for DACA recipients.
Vela-Martinez said the fear among many undocumented immigrants about being caught driving without a license has kept them from getting a job and paying taxes.
In March, for example, Hall County resident Eligio Rodriguez was deported after coming to the attention of ICE officials following multiple charges of driving without a license.
His two teenage boys are now living here without their mother or father.
Miller said he understands the necessity of having a driver’s license.
“Let’s face it, in Georgia, if you don’t have a driver’s license, you probably don’t have a job,” he said. “There is no mass transit. There is no way to get to work if you don’t have a driver’s license."
But Miller isn’t ready to grant exceptions to undocumented immigrants in Georgia or Hall County.
And the latest battle on immigration highlights an entrenched divide between many Democrats, including those in Georgia, who generally want to provide a path to citizenship, and many Republicans who want to secure the border first and increase deportations.
“It’s difficult to reconcile the opportunity for these young people — particularly those protected by DACA — to reconcile their employment and their engagement with the fact that they’re in the country illegally,” Miller said.“Now, are they contributing? Yes, fortunately. But there are probably others that aren’t.”