ATLANTA - Latino advocates and opponents of illegal immigration alternately praised and criticized Gov. Sonny Perdue on Thursday for vetoing legislation cracking down on motorists who drive without a license.
The governor rejected the bill Wednesday, warning that it could result in the prosecution of unintentional lawbreakers.
While neither Perdue nor the bill's sponsors acknowledged that it would have implications for Georgia's growing population of illegal immigrants, both supporters and opponents view it as targeting illegals.
"Sonny has caved to the pressure from the ethnic-based illegal alien/open borders lobby," D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, wrote on the anti-illegal-immigration group's Web site. "We will not forget."
Under the bill, introduced by Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta, a motorist convicted of driving without a valid Georgia license on the first offense would be jailed for not less than two days.
An offender convicted for the fourth time in five years would be guilty of a felony, punishable by one to five years in prison.
Another section of the legislation would require law enforcement agencies to make a "reasonable effort" to determine the nationality of anyone convicted under the bill and incarcerated under their supervision.
During the Senate debate, Wiles characterized the bill as a public safety measure. He cited a growing number of serious traffic accidents in Georgia caused by drivers who had never obtained a license.
That argument helped carry the bill through the Senate.
But the legislation nearly was sidetracked when it hit the House floor in April, squeaking through with just three votes to spare.
Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, one of three Latino lawmakers in the General Assembly, told his colleagues it would have a devastating effect on immigrants living in Georgia and send a negative message to foreign visitors.
Marin cited the recent arrest and overnight jailing in Brunswick of a Canadian woman on her way to Florida.
"(This) will only perpetuate the myth that Georgia is xenophobic and hostile to people of other countries," he said.
Perdue, in his veto message, said he was worried about how the bill would affect recent arrivals to Georgia.
"This broad provision would catch not only those who willfully drive without any valid license, but also persons who move into the state with a valid out-of-state driver's license that have not obtained a Georgia driver's license within 30 days of establishing residency," the governor wrote.
Wiles said he was disappointed by the veto and vowed to continue pushing for the bill.
Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, who co-sponsored the legislation, said he and Wiles will rewrite the measure to address the issue Perdue raised about out-of-state drivers.
"I understand his concerns," Rogers said Thursday. "We're willing to go back and make corrections to the bill."
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, applauded the veto. As with other moves by the General Assembly to deal with illegal immigration, he said the federal government is the proper arena for addressing the problem.
"Comprehensive immigration reform is moving in our U.S. Congress and will solve the issue of unlicensed drivers among the undocumented immigrant population," Gonzalez said.