By Mary Lou Pickel
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
GEORGIA — Driver's license bureaus and Georgia roads are becoming riskier places for illegal immigrants.
About two dozen driver's license investigators, state troopers and GBI agents have completed federal training to determine a suspect's legal status in the United States and, if necessary, start deportation proceedings.
Until now, the Cobb County Sheriff's Office has been the only police agency in Georgia to train with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cobb began deporting inmates from its jail in July.
The newly trained officers --- three driver's license fraud investigators, 14 state troopers and five Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents --- will start work over the next few months. Some are waiting for computer access to federal immigration data.
In addition, this year's state budget provides $537,860 to hire 10 new driver's license fraud investigators for centers across the state.
The GBI already has its three-man team in place and has started investigations, said GBI director Vernon Keenan. The state budget provided $201,996 for the positions. Two other agents who took the ICE training will be assigned to a homeland security unit separate from driver's license issues, Keenan said.
Counterfeiters use expensive equipment to make IDs and charge a high price, he said.
"They're making everything. Immigration papers, birth certificates, Social Security cards. You name it."
Fraud investigators at the state driver's license offices see a lot of fake Social Security cards and federal I-94 documents, said Rick Miller, director of investigations for the Department of Driver Services.
The I-94, known as the Arrival-Departure Record, is a white card issued to visitors to the U.S. showing how long they can legally stay. Georgia issues licenses to visitors for the time period their I-94s are valid.
Many legal tourists become illegal residents when they overstay the time allotted on the I-94.
Agents with driver services intend to apply the letter of the law to those with fake documents, which is a felony, Miller said.
"They've got a fraudulent document, they've committed a felony, and they're going to jail," he said.
While they're at it, agents can determine legal status and initiate deportation proceedings, Miller said.
Three driver's license fraud investigators with deportation powers should be ready to start in a few months.
They are awaiting passwords and access to federal computers, he said.
The department also will hire 10 more fraud investigators, for a total of 21, who will work out of driver's license offices across the state. It's not clear if they will take deportation training.
About 70 percent of the document fraud cases that driver services made last quarter were immigration related. Investigators see other instances of fraud, such as under-age people who try to appear older so they can buy alcohol, Miller said.
The State Patrol has trained 14 troopers, but for now, most will call into a federal hotline to obtain immigration information on a suspect because they won't be near jails with federal computers.
When they take suspects to jails on criminal charges, troopers can place a hold on suspects for possible immigration violations.
"There's no plan for us to go out and be rounding folks up," said State Patrol Lt. Kermit Stokes, who took the training. "If [troopers] come across someone who's a bad person and they shouldn't be in the country anyway --- then we can work on the deportation side of it, too."
The new focus on fake documents is a result of Senate Bill 529, Georgia's crackdown on illegal immigration, and Gov. Sonny Perdue's "Secure ID" initiative.
"Our efforts are going to be greatly increased. You're going to see more prosecutions because of Secure ID than you have in the past," said Miller, of driver services.
Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Ga. officers aid in deportations