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Taxi services offer options for immigrants, but not all abide by the rules, police say

In the predawn hours of Jan. 27, Alonso Ibarra-Avila plodded along Satellite Boulevard in a 1994 Nissan mini-van dotted with magnetic signs proclaiming "El Mexicano Taxi Service." It was business as usual until police lights flashed from behind.

A Gwinnett patrol officer stopped Ibarra-Avila because his "taxi" violated a county ordinance, in that the 15-year-old vehicle was too old to transport people, the officer concluded after a tag check. Face to face, the driver and the officer were hampered by a language barrier. The Mexico native didn't understand the officer's inquiries, according to a police report.

Ibarra-Avila wrote his name and birth date on a notepad. The officer ran a background check, finding the driver had never held a valid driver's license, let alone a taxi permit.

Days prior to the traffic stop, the suspect was sprung from jail on similar charges.

The officer allowed a female customer to walk to her nearby apartment. Ibarra-Avila went to jail, where he remained until he posted $2,388 bond four days later.

Ibarra-Avila faces a host of traffic charges - including violations for improper taxi markings, lack of maps and the overall shoddy condition of the vehicle - in addition to what some call a more arbitrary charge: his inability to speak English.

The suspect joins two other Hispanic men booked this year on charges related to their English proficiency while transporting citizens. In all of 2008, only four suspects were arrested on similar charges in Gwinnett, records show.

To obtain a driver's work permit, county ordinances stipulate applicants must "exhibit a proficiency with the English language ... to comprehend and interpret traffic signs, issue written receipts to passengers and obey lawful orders of police." And, police add, strong lines of communication typically work in a customer's favor.

"This does cause a problem to patrons for the mere fact that the driver needs to understand where (they are) going, money owed for service," Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said.

But the ordinances - and the method by which police enforce them - have led some immigrant rights advocates to cry foul.

Elise Shore, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the arrests of non-English speaking taxi workers borderline civil-rights violations, regardless of their permit status.

"We think it's constitutionally suspect," Shore said. "(It's) something we think is problematic."

Shore contends such ordinances could be selectively enforced, meaning drivers of Latino or African origins are targeted while others slip by.

Across metro Atlanta "we have heard reports of taxi drivers being stopped and asked about their immigration status and (that of) their passengers, too," Shore said. "That's an issue we are investigating."

Police maintain the stops are triggered by other red flags of ordinance violations, such as the vehicle's exterior condition. Schiralli, the police spokesman, said there's no clear-cut method to determine a driver's English proficiency.

All taxi drivers are required to be U.S. citizens or federally authorized workers, at least 21 years old with a clean criminal history.

"There's no set skill that we go by," Schiralli said. "If he says, 'No hablo ingles' ... then (an officer) can make that charge."

Booming business

On any given night, officers across Gwinnett haul to jail as many as two dozen non-licensed drivers - and on occasion even more - as evidenced by recent Gwinnett County Jail dockets. Newly arrived immigrants know the charges can be a swift ticket out of the United States, especially in the face of growing pressure to implement federal deportation programs, Shore said.

That's good news for the taxi industry.

"What we have seen is an increase in individuals using taxis in order to comply with the law, if they don't have driver's licenses," Shore said. "There's an increase in the demand for taxis in the Latino community."

For proof, one need look no further than the bodegas and shopping centers that line Buford Highway through Norcross, where chunks of parking lots are dedicated to taxis and their waiting patrons. Nearly a third of parking spots at Plaza Latina, home to a Western Union and a grocer, are dedicated to International Taxi Service, a ubiquitous fleet headquartered on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. There's even a shaded picnic table where shoppers call, wait and watch workers at the under-construction Lillian Webb Park next door.

A surge in the prosecution of taxi drivers, Shore contends, could have negative effects on the non-licensed Latino population, who could opt to drive themselves.

"This is a supply issue," she said.

The demand, at least for now, doesn't appear to be waning.

At least five legitimate companies cater to the international population in southwestern Gwinnett. On a recent visit to International Taxi's office, an office manager, swamped with pre-noon requests for service, declined comment.

"I'm too busy to speak," he said.

The rides, according to that company's rates, are relatively expensive - at least three times more than a local bus route. A quick trip for groceries will set patrons back a minimum of $12.

Abel Esparza, an International Taxi driver, said his patrons are willing to pay for the convenience taxis afford. Nobody, he said, wants to lug groceries or drag their dry-cleaning around on a bus.

Esparza, 42, turned to taxi service when the economy tanked and he was laid off as a mechanic. He keeps his two permits - one for the city of Norcross, the other for greater Gwinnett, which cost him $375 annually - prominently hanging from sun-visors in his own 1996 Oldsmobile. He works 12 hours most days, pipelining much of his earnings to his kin in San Luiz Potosi, Mexico, he said.

Esparza said nonpermitted drivers are the minority, catering mostly to people they know. But police profiling and unprovoked shakedowns of taxi drivers - permitted and not - are a grim reality, he said.

"I think it's racist - they're looking for Hispanic people," he said. "It's like not common sense to me."