ATLANTA — Some quiet changes to a bill that was intended as a simple fix for unintended consequences of a 2011 crackdown on illegal immigration have turned a bill that originally had fairly universal support into a rallying point for activists on all sides of the immigration issue.
The bill sponsored by state Rep. Dustin Hightower, R-Carrollton, was presented as a solution to complaints from several state agencies that Georgia’s 2011 law was creating extra work and delays in processing public benefits, including professional licenses.
It was an almost purely bureaucratic measure that neither those in favor of tighter controls on illegal immigration nor immigrant rights advocates had paid much attention to.
But the amended bill passed by the House on Monday would effectively deny driver’s licenses to young people brought to the country illegally as children and who have been granted temporary permission to stay and work under an Obama administration initiative. It also would bar illegal immigrants from being able to get a marriage license or access water and sewage services in the state.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia is quickly organizing efforts to protest the bill.
“All of a sudden, we’re confronted with all of these damaging changes,” the ACLU’s Azadeh Shahshahani said. “These are all additional complications and burdens that we don’t need.”
The Dustin Inman Society, which pushes for stronger laws targeting illegal immigration, sent out an e-mail blast to supporters urging them to call their lawmakers to tell them to keep Hightower’s bill intact and to defeat a more limited Senate version of the bill.
Though Hightower says he didn’t initially realize the potential effects of the changes, he hasn’t said whether he intends to take them out.
“The original intent of this bill was to be something to facilitate people obtaining and keeping a professional license in a much easier fashion,” he said, adding that it was also meant to preserve taxpayer-funded public benefits for U.S. citizens and other eligible legal residents.
Georgia’s 2011 law targeting illegal immigration requires anyone applying for or renewing public benefits – such as professional licenses, welfare and unemployment benefits – to provide a “secure and verifiable” document proving their U.S. citizenship or legal presence in the country.
People in the country illegally have long been ineligible for Georgia driver’s licenses. But after the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program took effect in August, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens declared that those with deferred status could get a temporary driver’s license.
However, the advisory opinion Olens issued at Gov. Nathan Deal’s request seems to indicate that those in the federal program are not eligible for state identity cards, because those IDs are subject to the law governing public benefits. The pending legislation adds “state issued driver’s licenses” to the list of public benefits.
Hightower said he didn’t know whether his bill denies driver’s licenses to those granted deferred action, and said that wasn’t his specific intent. But he didn’t say whether that was something he’d be in favor of or whether he’d reconsider the addition of driver’s licenses to the list of public benefits.
The 2011 law charged the state attorney general’s office with creating a list of documents that government agencies could accept if they require identification for an official purpose. The list currently includes foreign passports, the only document on the list that those in the country illegally would be able to obtain legitimately.
Hightower’s bill says that to be acceptable, foreign passports would have to be accompanied by federal immigration documentation proving someone is in the country legally.
By removing foreign passports from the list unless they’re accompanied by federal immigration documentation, the new bill would technically prevent illegal immigrants from getting a marriage license in Georgia or from accessing water and sewage service in the many municipalities that require identification to turn on service.
Hightower said the possibility of preventing illegal immigrants from obtaining marriage licenses and access to water and sewer services was not intentional. Since being made aware of that issue, he’s looking at what can be done to resolve it, he said.