A bill designed to wipe out red tape created by Georgia’s sweeping immigration statute would put the state in violation of a federal anti-terrorism law, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
The Republican sponsor of the measure disclosed the problem to the AJC and confirmed that he is preparing to scrap the offending provision. That section, intended to block illegal immigrants from obtaining state driver’s licenses, conflicts with a federal identification law Congress passed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the state’s Driver Services Department.
“We don’t want to fix a problem and create one,” said state Rep. Dustin Hightower of Carrollton.
At the same time, Hightower is defending the bill, HB 125, against critics who worry it would create delays for thousands of Georgia residents applying for homestead tax exemptions.
The measure, which could come up for a hearing in the state Senate as early as Wednesday, has become the latest flash point in the heated debate over illegal immigration in Georgia. It’s also a reminder of how nettlesome state immigration law can be.
After Georgia’s Legislature enacted its comprehensive immigration law in 2011, state officials started complaining of several unintended consequences, including massive backlogs in renewing state licenses for professionals such as nurses and insurance salesmen.
Hightower set out to fix that problem, but while he was at it, he and other House members included language touching on subjects as diverse as drivers licenses and homestead exemptions. And that’s where things got sticky.
The delays in renewals of professional licenses grew out of the law’s requirement that applicants show one of certain forms of “secure and verifiable” identification every time they sought a renewal. State officials said that requirement has bogged down the professional licensing process.
Hightower’s bill would require applicants to show a specified form of ID once but not repeatedly, every time they apply for a renewal. To further ease the process, they could submit copies of the required documents in person, or by mail, online or by fax.
That’s all fine. The conflict with federal law arose when the House made drivers licenses subject to the same process, including the copies-online-or-by-fax part.
The federal REAL ID Act requires people to submit original or certified copies of documents such as a passport or a birth certificate to receive state identification. That’s not surprising, given that state IDs can be used to access commercial flights, federal buildings and nuclear power plants.
The mention of drivers licenses in HB 125 is popular with immigration watchdogs, who want to deter illegal immigrants from getting drivers licenses. The Dustin Inman Society, a Georgia-based group that supports the enforcement of federal immigration laws, has come out in favor of HB 125.
Georgia was home to an estimated 440,000 illegal immigrants in 2011, according to a U.S. Homeland Security Department report.
Critics of the bill are concerned it that would thwart certain illegal immigrants who are eligible for drivers licenses: those who have been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. As of March 14, 14,861 immigrants in Georgia have applied for deferred action, federal records show.
Hightower said he wasn’t focused on blocking those particular immigrants but was just trying to codify existing state practices. He said he intends to introduce a substitute version of his bill that omits any mention of drivers licenses.
The Driver Services Department referred questions about this part of HB 125 to the Georgia Attorney General’s office. A spokesman for that office declined to comment because the bill is still pending.
The flap over homestead exemptions arose because the bill would also require taxpayers seeking them to show secure and verifiable identification. Critics contend that could bog down applications for thousands of state residents.
Hightower denied that, saying his legislation would affect only new applicants. Tax officials in Cherokee, Cobb, Fulton and Floyd counties told the AJC they would not expect serious problems if HB125 becomes law.
But Larry Pellegrini, a lobbyist for the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said it is unclear to him whether the bill is retroactive. He also wondered how the state could legally grandfather existing recipients of homestead tax exemptions but require new applicants to show secure and verifiable identification.
“The obsession with this kind of legislation, I don’t know where it stops,” he said. “If they keep letting it in – even in little pieces – then we are going to be dealing with this for years and we are going to be correcting it for years.”
The House passed HB 125 this month. It is now pending in the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. That panel’s chairman, Sen. Jesse Stone of Waynesboro, told the AJC Monday that he might schedule a hearing on HB 125 for Wednesday. First, though, he wants to consult the Legislature’s attorneys about the provisions dealing with drivers licenses and homestead tax exemptions.
A similar bill – which does not contain those provisions – has passed the Senate and is pending before a House committee.
House Bill 125 has passed the House and is now pending in the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. Senate Bill 160 has passed the Senate and is now pending in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
Both bills would tweak Georgia’s immigration laws so that people who have presented identification proving U.S. citizenship would not have to do so again when reapplying for public benefits, including professional licenses. HB 125 includes additional measures. Some highlights:
• Adds driver’s licenses, homestead tax exemptions, assisted housing, tax credits, grants and retirement benefits to the list of public benefits for which people must show certain forms of “secure and verifiable” identification.
• Prohibits people from using foreign passports to obtain public benefits, unless those passports include records indicating they are legally in the country.
• Says all city, county and state government agencies must require their contractors to use a free online work-authorization program called E-Verify. Government agencies with fewer than two employees are now exempt from this requirement.