The Georgia state legislature closed its session on March 20 and many immigrant women here heaved a sigh of relief. A trip to the grocery store or work or school won't mean risking arrest.
Hard to believe, but a small group of state lawmakers here recently tried to take away drivers' licenses from a group of people in the state with "deferred action" status under federal immigration procedures.
Those at risk included DREAMers with work permits under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and certain other people, including victims of domestic violence, with deferred action status granted for other reasons.
The failure of the bill, SB 404, is a victory for women's rights and an occasion to celebrate as part of women's history for many years to come.
Immigrant women in Georgia need a driver's license in order to navigate their lives with dignity and without dependence on others, including their abusers in the case of domestic violence survivors.
Had Georgia revoked the licenses, it would have become one of only three states to exclude an entire group of immigrants from having access to drivers' licenses. (Arizona excludes immigrants with deferred action from getting a license, as does Nebraska.)
For women fleeing abusive relationships, the revocation of licenses would have been disastrous, says Jessica Nunan, executive director of Caminar Latino, an organization based in Georgia that works with Latino families affected by violence.
"A driver's license removes one of many barriers for survivors who are trying to leave an abusive situation," says Nunan. "By enabling survivors to drive themselves to work, drive their kids to school, go to a grocery store and many other tasks many of us take for granted, we are helping them on their path towards safety and well-being."
U Visa Option
A noncitizen victim of domestic violence or other crimes may seek a U visa if she assists the authorities in an investigation or prosecution. She may eventually apply for lawful permanent residence and citizenship. A statutory cap limits the number of U visas available to 10,000 in any given fiscal year.
Victims who cannot yet receive a U visa due solely to the annual cap restriction can use deferred action, which allows them to seek work while waiting their turn to get a U visa and permanent residence.
Another way the deferred action category arises for noncitizen domestic violence survivors is when they decide to seek immigration relief by applying for lawful permanent residence and, ultimately, citizenship, under the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA.
That process can take years. While they are waiting for VAWA protection they have deferred action and the majority of them obtain a work permit based on the deferred action grant.
The main group who just held on to their drivers' licenses is the Georgia DREAMers. These are young people brought to the United States as children, sometimes as infants. For many, Georgia is the only place they consider home.
In 2012, after many Georgia DREAMers received work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, state authorities allowed them to apply for driver's licenses so they could more easily go to school, drive their siblings to school, go to work and live with greater dignity.
To date, 10,882 people who have received deferred action have applied for Georgia drivers' licenses and state ID cards, according to the state's Driver Services Department.
Miriam Kim is hoping to soon join the ranks. Kim was born in Michoacán, México, and was brought to the United States when she was 3 years old. Now 26, Kim is married and has a 5-year-old son. This past fall, she began attending Freedom University, a nonprofit institution that provides college-level instruction to undocumented students denied admission to Georgia's public universities. She has applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and is awaiting the results.
"My son is starting public school in August, and I really can't see it working out unless I am granted a driver's license," says Kim. "I intend on being an active parent in his school, joining PTA and other similar organizations. This won't be feasible if I am unable to drive. I'd break the law getting my child to and from school. I'd be breaking the law when going to the grocery store to get the food my family consumes throughout the week. I'd be breaking the law when I attend Freedom U classes."
The piece originally appeared in Women's eNews.