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Nil Govind Das, et al. v. Bert Brantley

Georgia discriminated against immigrants by enforcing an unconstitutional policy that directed state officials to deny driver’s licenses to people based on their past – rather than current – immigration status.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Atlanta immigration attorney Justin W. Chaney filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six people denied licenses. All of them were authorized to work in the United States as they waited 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 had been granted valid driver’s licenses for years but were denied under Georgia’s new policy when they attempted to renew their licenses.

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

The DDS policy categorically denied 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. 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 refused to issue licenses to them.

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.

A settlement agreement was reached that rescinded the policy. The state changed the policy in May 2016, shortly after the SPLC filed the lawsuit. A month later, 2,753 licenses were issued to people authorized to work in the United States while the federal government processed their applications for a green card, according to the state Department of Driver Services’ statements in the agreement.

That figure translates to an average of 119 licenses issued per business day to people who may have been denied under the previous policy, according to the agreement. Before the policy change on May 16, 2016, Georgia had issued an average of only 19 licenses per business day (1,872 total) to such applicants for all of 2016.