LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — It was just another suburban fender-bender. A car zoomed into an intersection and braked too late to stop at a red light.
But for Felipa Leonor Valencia, the Mexican woman who was driving the Jeep that was hit that day in March, the damage went far beyond a battered bumper. The crash led Valencia, an illegal immigrant who did not have a valid driver’s license, to deportation proceedings — after 17 years of living in Georgia.
Like Valencia, an estimated 4.5 million illegal immigrants nationwide are driving regularly, most without licenses, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Only three states — New Mexico, Utah and Washington — currently issue licenses without proof of legal residence in the United States.
Many states have adopted tough new laws to prevent illegal immigrants from driving, while expanding immigration enforcement by the state and local police. As a result, at least 30,000 illegal immigrants who were stopped for common traffic violations in the last three years have ended up in deportation, Department of Homeland Security figures show. The numbers are rapidly increasing, aggravating tensions in the national debate over immigration.
In Georgia, voters have been worried about unlicensed illegal immigrants whose driving skills are untested and who often lack insurance, including some who caused well-publicized accidents. Lawmakershave tightened requirements to keep illegal immigrants from obtaining licenses and license plates, and have increased penalties for driving without them.
Many Georgia counties have begun to cooperate formally with the Department of Homeland Security, so that illegal immigrants detained by the local police are turned over more consistently to federal immigration authorities.