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SPLC lawsuit: Georgia violating federal law by denying driver’s licenses to immigrants

Georgia is discriminating against immigrants by enforcing an unconstitutional policy that directs state officials to deny driver’s licenses to people based on their past – rather than current – immigration status, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Atlanta immigration attorney Justin W. Chaney.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six people denied licenses. All of them are currently authorized to work in the United States as they wait for the federal government to process their applications for lawful permanent residency (also known as a green card), which can take several years. Some of the plaintiffs have had valid driver’s licenses for years but were denied under Georgia’s new policy when they attempted to renew their licenses.

The lawsuit is seeking class action status on behalf of thousands of Georgia residents who have applied to adjust their immigration status to lawful permanent resident and are being affected by the policy implemented in 2015 by the state Department of Driver Services (DDS).

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.

“Georgia is blatantly discriminating against immigrants and violating federal law,” said Kristi Graunke, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “The Department of Driver Services is needlessly creating hardship for people patiently waiting for our federal immigration system to process their applications for permanent residency.”  

The DDS policy categorically denies driver’s licenses to immigrants who, despite their current authorization to stay and work in the United States, are unable to demonstrate a history of continuous lawful presence. The lawsuit describes how the policy violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by discriminating against noncitizens that the federal government has authorized to stay and work in the United States while they wait, sometimes several years, for their permanent residency applications to be reviewed.

It also notes that states do not have the authority to create immigration classifications that do not exist in federal law or to unilaterally assess the legality of a person’s presence in the United States.

When the plaintiffs tried to renew or acquire driver’s licenses, they were referred to the department’s Office of Investigative Services, where they had to provide numerous immigration documents that should not be necessary to obtain a license. Even after the plaintiffs submitted these documents, the office has refused to issue licenses to them.

“I have a work permit, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the state of Georgia,” said one plaintiff, Victor Escobedo. “I pay taxes and I am pursuing legal permanent residency, but I am suddenly not eligible to drive. I need to drive to get to work so I can support my family.”

These immigrants are also losing income and even finding themselves unable to participate in their religious communities as a result of the policy. Under Georgia law, driving without a license can result in hefty fines and a prison sentence of up to five years.

“A state agency is attempting to act as immigration enforcement,” said Chaney, the Atlanta immigration attorney. “Denying licenses to immigrants is a clear overreach, and the policy is making it impossible for some residents to live and work in the state.”