New State Law Affects Illegal Immigrants

Mary Lou Pickel, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 18, 2007

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Jose Genao sells used cars for a living, but lately, he’s had to turn away customers from his Smyrna dealership.

Genao used to sell about 15 vehicles a week, mostly Ford F-150 or Silverado pickups to a Mexican clientele. Now he sells only two or three.

Half a dozen customers have returned cars because they can’t register them.

Genao is feeling the fallout from a new state law, effective July 1, that requires a valid Georgia driver’s license or ID card to register a car in Georgia.

The law is cutting deep into traffic for many auto dealers and tag and title services catering to the state’s growing immigrant community. Illegal immigrants can’t get driver’s licenses because to do so, they must prove they’re in the country legally.

The law also has the potential to cut into sales taxes and county ad valorem tax revenues, though metro Atlanta counties say it’s too early to measure that effect.

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The license plate law closes a window that gave motorists 30 days to get Georgia driver’s licenses after moving to the state. In the interim, a driver could register a car with an out-of-state or international license.

Also effective July 1 was a separate, 2006 law requiring increased verification of legal status in Georgia for a variety of other purposes, including to work in some jobs or qualify for welfare.

While no one knows how many illegal immigrants are in Georgia, a government estimate put the number at about 470,000. Nationally, most illegal immigrants are from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, India and China, according to a 2005 Department of Homeland Security report.

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Tony Brooks, an insurance agent who caters to the Hispanic community in Marietta, said business for his tag and title service has dropped off about 80 percent since the law went into effect.

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He’s had to turn away 30 to 40 people wanting tags in the past two weeks because they don’t have Georgia driver’s licenses.

His main business is auto insurance, which hasn’t suffered, but he’s worried immigrant customers won’t buy insurance either if they can’t register their cars.

Cobb County’s tag offices have seen a “significant decrease” in the volume of applications submitted by tag and title services in the past two weeks, said Stewart Manley, manager of Cobb County’s tag offices.

The county also has turned away about 40 people per day, Manley said, out of an average 1,900 customers served daily. Some are people who have moved from other states and don’t have Georgia driver’s licenses yet, Manley said. “They’re complaining mildly,” he said.

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Loopholes exist even with the new law.

An illegal immigrant can still mail in a tag renewal or go online and avoid the need to show a driver’s license.

That’s what Raul Hernandez plans to do. He is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who came here legally but overstayed his visa and so has a Georgia driver’s license. He doesn’t have to worry about the tag problem, but his friends do.

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Isaias Zavala, 33, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who works construction, said he has no license but his wife does, so he registers their car through her. Still, he worries because he has to drive to work.

“This all seems very bad to me,” he said in Spanish of the new law.

Perimeter Insurance Agency used to process 25 tags per week in one Cobb County location. Since July 1, they’ve done only three renewals, said Jose Mendez, part owner of the business.

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July 1: The date the new vehicle registration law took effect

470,000: Government estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia, but the actual number is unknown.

40: The number of people Cobb County’s tag offices have turned away per day out of an average 1,900 customers served daily.

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