By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 20, 2008
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory is asking the Georgia Senate to sideline a legislative proposal targeting illegal immigrants driving cars in the state, saying it would unfairly punish families.
The bill proposes allowing law enforcement officials to seize the car or truck driven by an undocumented person who is in an accident or commits a traffic violation.
In a letter to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Archbishop Gregory said the measure is “an extremely harsh and grossly disproportionate penalty against families and particularly against the poor” in Georgia.
The measure, HB 978, is part of a package of immigration-related bills that surfaced in the Georgia Legislature this term. Some have likely died, such as a proposed constitutional amendment to make Georgia government English-only, but other proposals continue to be debated.
Rep. James Mills (R-Gainesville) sponsored the car-seizure legislation.
It would empower police to seize any vehicle driven by an illegal immigrant that is involved in a traffic violation or accident, if the bill becomes law. The proposal would cover rented and leased cars and trucks and, in a version currently being debated, would require an owner to prove he did not know the driver was an illegal immigrant to recover the vehicle.
Mills told his legislative colleagues during the House debate that the measure was necessary to combat illegal immigration here.
But critics of the proposal have said police officers don’t have the resources at a crash to determine if the driver is in the country illegally.
The measure easily passed the House on Feb. 28 by a vote of 104 to 51.
The interest surrounding immigration in Georgia mirrors what is happening across the country. Legislatures are writing immigration law since the federal government isn’t taking action, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State lawmakers debated more than 1,500 bills related to immigration in 2007 and passed 240 laws, according to the Denver organization. The number of enacted laws is triple the number in 2006, when 84 legislative initiatives became law.
Immigration has been a priority of the archbishop for the past two years as more Latinos make their home in Georgia.
Archbishop Gregory does not write letters to legislative leaders often so this letter shows his concern for the issue, said Pat Chivers, the communications director for the archdiocese. It was delivered on Thursday, March 13.
The archbishop told Cagle that if a federal immigration law has been broken, it should be redressed with federal law, “not by taking the property they need to live and to support their families,” said the archbishop.
He asked that a legislative task force study the impact of the proposal to understand its effects before it is authorized.
In 2006, Archbishop Gregory penned a pastoral letter on immigration along with Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland. The Catholic spiritual leaders said “the treatment of the immigrant too often reflects failures of understanding and sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination that deny the unity of the human family.”
Last year, the archbishop joined with Jewish and Muslim leaders calling for an immigration debate that doesn’t denigrate the newcomers.
Representatives from the Georgia Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the two dioceses in the state, have worked the halls of the statehouse in opposition to the measure. Frank Mulcahy, executive director, spoke against the measure to the Senate Public Safety Committee on March 17.
Chivers said senators raised a lot of questions about the proposal.
“I’m pleased that it didn’t pass the subcommittee, but I’m still cautious,” she said.