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Immigrants in Georgia Must Have Opportunity to Get Licenses, GA Court Says

By: Bridget Clerkin May 27, 2016
A Georgia court has paved the way for legal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in the state.

How often could you get to work without a driver’s license?

For Victor Escobedo, the answer is not at all. Driving is an integral part of the job for the Kennesaw, Georgia resident, a handyman who runs his own business in the small southern town. Without the opportunity to use his truck, the logistics of getting work done become very difficult.

The Mexican-born businessman was able to secure an initial license in Georgia, but he was unable to repeat that success a few years later, when it came time to have his license renewed. The problem? He’s not a U.S. citizen—yet.

Escobedo is one of six immigrants living in the Peach State who have sued Georgia for the right to have a driver’s license. All are here through legal work permits and on the path to getting their green cards, but that hasn’t been enough for the state to give them permission to drive.

Their requests—whether for an original license or renewal—have bumped up against a 2015 Georgia law mandating that the GA Department of Driver Services (DDS) dismiss any applicant who can’t prove continual legal U.S. residency, even if they have legal work permits.

But a recent ruling by the state’s Fulton County Superior Court declared that federal working papers should be enough to secure a license, accepting the plaintiffs’ argument that Washington’s approval to be here should be the final word. Asking immigrants to go above and beyond that, the court said, is discriminatory.

Georgia’s DDS, for their part, have said that the process and the policy have nothing to do with singling people out and are intended instead to elevate the levels of safety and security the department can offer state residents.

Regardless, that policy has now been shot down. And while the change at the DDS would only affect those in the country legally, Georgia has been somewhat of a hotspot for non-natives in recent years, counting as many as 400,000 undocumented immigrants among its population in 2012, with signs showing that number could be on the rise.

The Peach State is just the latest to join the national conversation on the country’s immigration system and the rights it affords to those who come to the U.S. from other countries—whether through legal channels or less lawful means.

A growing number of states have gone one step further than GA, extending the opportunity to undocumented immigrants, though not residing here legally, to at least drive here lawfully. California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Delaware are just some of the nearly dozen states now offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

California alone minted an estimated 605,000 new driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the first year after the law was introduced.

Georgia may not be at that point yet, but the change in its system will likely usher in many new drivers, and at least one who will be able to get his old license—and his handyman business—back.

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