A college graduation party is winding down late one Friday evening. Yovani Reyes and
his fiancee thank the hosts and head toward their pickup truck in preparation for the 20-minute
Reyes, an Atlanta restaurant worker, is stone sober while his recently graduated soon-to-
be wife, a native of Oklahoma, is anything but. As his intoxicated lover puts the key in the
ignition, Reyes buckles his seatbelt on the passenger side without saying a word.
Reyes, like millions of others living and working in the United States, is an illegal
immigrant. Due to his undocumented status, Reyes is prohibited from obtaining a government
issued driver’s license.
Reyes says, "As a couple we have decided that whenever we drive somewhere together,
Heather will drive, especially if it is late at night. It is too risky for me to get pulled over. Our
whole future together could be at stake every time I get behind the wheel because I don’t have a
license and I am here without documentation."
Reyes feels more comfortable driving during the day and regularly drives to work. He is
employed by two restaurants in downtown Atlanta and often finds himself working 80-hour
Jeremy Sparks also works in city of Atlanta. Make that for the city of Atlanta.
Sparks, as a police officer, finds himself dealing with the issue of illegal immigrants and
driving on a daily basis.
Sparks says, "The biggest misunderstanding people seem to have is that I have some
degree of control in what will ultimately happen to an illegal immigrant if I happen to engage one
during a traffic stop. I am only there to enforce the law."
Sparks has the look of law enforcer: a freshly shaved head, glistening Oakley sunglasses,
and a goatee maintained with such precision that not a hair dares to deviate from place.
Sparks continues, " Sometimes people beg or argue, but if I pull you over and you don’t
have a driver’s license, I have a responsibility to arrest you. If you have a license, but don’t have
it on you then there is a good chance you can get away with just being ticketed. If you simply
don’t have a license, however, you are likely headed to jail. That’s my job. The law doesn’t have
a lot of grey area on these things."
Sparks concludes, "It’s not a matter of race, or politics, or any of that, at least not for me.
It’s simply following the letter of the law."
According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, the number of illegal
immigrants in Georgia has risen to 425,000, placing it as the seventh-largest state in terms of
numbers of undocumented residents.
Among the new arrivals is Ivan Hernandez.
Originally from Juarez, Mexico, Hernandez spent his first three months in the United
States in Houston. Unable to find work, Hernandez followed the path of one of his cousins and
relocated to the metro Atlanta area.
Hernandez has had a tough life. Raised by his grandmother in Mexico until her death
when he was just 13, Hernandez admits that after her passing, he was forced to panhandle on
street corners just to survive.
Hernandez says, "I came here, two years ago, for the same reasons we all come here. For
a better opportunity. I want to find a wife and start a family and the life I was leading in Mexico
was not a life to bring children into."
The risks that plague illegal immigrants if they choose to drive without a license were not initially clear to Hernandez.
"When I talked to people in Mexico right before I left for Houston, I thought one of the
main things I could do when I got to America was drive a taxi. I had no idea it would be so tough
to get a driver’s license," Hernandez adds.
For many advocates of immigrants’ rights, the presidential election of 2008 appeared to
offer real hope that things could be changing for the better.
According to a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article, then-Sen. Barack Obama outlined a
proposal to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants nationwide. Obama subsequently
promised to tackle the divisive issue within his first year in office were he to be elected.
Unfortunately for undocumented workers, Obama’s position became progressively more
untenable as support for illegal immigrants’ rights waned when illegal aliens became convenient
scapegoats during a prolonged economic downturn that would cripple the American economy.
In addition to national sentiment turning against illegal immigrants, several developments
on the state level have further disenfranchised undocumented residents.
In 2010, the state of Arizona passed legislation that drew national attention and the ire of
immigration rights’ activists.
The constitutionality of the law is still being adjudicated, but the intent of the law’s
authors was clear. Chiefly among the law’s aims was to mandate that local law enforcement
personnel actively attempt to ascertain the legal status of any individual they came into contact
In the wake of the Arizona crisis, dozens of other states have proposed similar measures.
In 2001, 11 states had passed legislation that allowed for non-citizens to acquire drivers
licenses. Today that number is reduced to three.
The three states that still do allow for illegal immigrants (Utah, Washington, and New
Mexico) to acquire licenses have passed or are in the process of passing legislation that would
outlaw the practice.
Reyes recalls a time when things used to be different: "I remember when I was 8 or 9 and
we took a family vacation to North Carolina so my father could get a driver’s license. Dad still
has the license. It’s expired but he still carries it in his wallet just in case."
Another setback for proponents of licenses for undocumented aliens occurred in the form
of the 2005 REAL ID Act.
The REAL ID Act was a piece of federal legislation, proposed by the Office of Homeland
Security in conjunction with the September 11 Commission and passed by Congress, that
attempted to establish national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses.
The Act gave a deadline of 2008 before the states had to come into compliance with the
requirements laid out in the bill. Subsequently, all 50 states were given waivers to postpone
The law’s supporters pointed out that 13 driver’s licenses were issued to 9/11 hijackers.
This use of terrorism, or fear of terrorism, as a rationale to deny licenses to individuals
who came to America solely in the hopes of bettering the lives of their families is offensive to
many who live with the consequences.
Wilkerson says of her future husband, "I would argue that Yovani and the millions of
undocumented Mexicans living here are more likely to be law-abiding than even the average
American. Of course, you are always going to have some bad apples, but the overwhelming
majority of Latino immigrants are decent folks who came to America because they love
Reyes agrees, "This country is my home. I only have three memories of my early years
in Mexico. America is what I know. I go out of my way to obey the laws and customs of
America because I cherish the opportunity I have living here."
The debate on illegal immigrants and driver’s licenses shows no shows of dissipating.
The ideological fringe on either side of the argument continue to be allowed to frame the
A pragmatic compromise seems years away from becoming reality.
And so Reyes and Hernandez wait.
But so do Wilkerson and Sparks.
The illegal immigration problem affects the entire nation. Native and Immigrant. Citizen
and Undocumented alike.
There is one other American cultural tradition Reyes and Wilkerson would like to be a
"In the movies, you always see the bride and groom dashing off in the car with ‘Just
Married’ spray painted on the back with the cans trailing behind. I would like to drive my new
wife into the sunset," says Reyes. "But if the American politicians say no, It’s OK. I will get to
chauffeur her around on our honeymoon. We’re going to Cancun."
The Georgia Legislature sent a clear sign to the illegal immigration population of Georgia
with its passage of an Arizona-style immigration bill.
It says quite simply: Get out.
Just like the constitutionally dubious Arizona attempt, this piece of legislation gives law
enforcement officers the authority to question anyone they come in contact with about their legal
The bill has not been signed yet, but Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign it
into when it comes across his desk.
The bill requires private employers to check potential employees against E-Verify, a
federal database, to ensure that all workers are here legally.
Yovani Reyes is a 23-year-old illegal immigrant who came to America shortly after he
Reyes says, "These politicians are voting with their hearts instead of their minds. They
don’t realize how strong the Latino community is today and they don’t pay attention to the
numbers. In 30 years we (Latinos) are going to be the majority."
Reyes continues, "These Republicans are going to regret betraying such a big group of
voters. I understand the economic situation isn’t great now and they are looking for somebody to
blame, but they are doing more harm than good."
His fiancee, Heather Wilkerson concurs, "The problem with the bill is the message it
sends. The biggest employer statewide is the agriculture sector and they use illegal labor as much
as anybody does. You are going to have an exodus of workers and it is going to drive up the price
For Atlanta Police Officer Jeremy Sparks, the more things change the more they stay the
same. "If it(the bill) becomes law I’ll enforce it."
Ivan Hernandez is a recently arrived illegal immigrant.
Hernandez, unlike Reyes, has relatively few family and friends in Atlanta, so for him it
could mean a change of address. Hernandez says, "If Georgia has this kind of law and other
states don’t, I should live there instead of here."
What has so many of the bill’s opponents so infuriated is the potential economic loss the
state might face if this legislation is ever enacted.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected
Officials, wrote in Creative Loafing "Georgia is the home of many multinational corporations,
has the world’s busiest airport, has a thirst for expanding international trade, and is the cradle of
the civil rights movement. Georgia’s economic development efforts rely upon it being seen as a
good place to do business."
In addition to local objections, the bill has drawn criticism from the White House.
President Obama says, "It is a mistake to try to do this piecemeal," in an interview with WSB-
TV. Obama adds, "We can’t have 50 different immigration laws around the country."
The bill, Georgia House Bill (HB) 87, was passed on April 14 and is expected to be
signed by Deal in early May. An extensive legal battle about the bill’s constitutionality is widely