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Apr 21, 2:14 PM EDT

1 woman's protest: Free rides to immigrants without licenses


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AP Photo/Adriana Gomez

REDLAND, Fla. (AP) -- Antonia Catalan maneuvers her gray SUV around potholes in the dirt roads where rural South Florida meets the swampy Everglades. She's looking for a man who's in the country illegally.

She puts on her reading glasses and grabs a crumpled piece of paper with the address of a nursery that grows palm trees for Miami's affluent communities. A muddy driveway leads to a trailer home and a young man with an empty water jug.

"Where are we heading? You are the boss," says Catalan, 59, tossing her long braid over her shoulder. "I'm in no hurry."

The 32-year-old Guatemalan passenger is one of a dozen workers Catalan drives for free. It's her one-woman response to the fear spreading in migrant communities over President Donald Trump's enforcement directives.

Around the country, many more ordinary people are volunteering to help people in the country illegally - but the lawfulness of such gestures isn't always clear.

Hundreds of church members are signing up to create or support sanctuaries, hoping to protect immigrants from deportations inside houses of worship. Others are training to accompany immigrants to court or check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement where they could be detained and deported.

Immigration law experts say volunteering to help immigrants already in the country illegally is generally not against the law. They say that although federal law makes it a crime to transport people in the country illegally, the law was intended to apply for those that help them cross into the U.S. without permission.

Tammy Fox-Isicoff, board member of American Immigration Lawyers' Association, said that for driver Catalan, "it would be a big stretch" to consider her service criminal behavior because she is not trying to hide the immigrants.

However, Trump has raised doubts by ordering up rules to penalize people who "facilitate their presence" in the U.S. Conservative critics say these kinds of volunteers should be punished along with the immigrants they are helping.

Some conservative states have sought to crack down on helping immigrants who are in the country illegally. In Arizona, a section of the state's 2010 landmark immigration law barred people from transporting, concealing or harboring immigrants who are in the county illegally. The section raised fears that people could be breaking state laws simply by giving a ride to someone in the country illegally, and the provision was ultimately dropped. Similar legislation in Florida failed to pass.

Catalan said she's had no legal issues with her ride-hailing service, which has grown as she tells neighbors and friends in her town of Redland that she'll drive immigrants to supermarkets, money-transfer booths, package couriers and even the hospital.

She was born in Mexico, but unlike many of her neighbors, she's a U.S. citizen with a driver's license. California, Illinois, Washington and Maryland are among the states that issue driver's licenses to people in the country illegally, but not Florida.

Since leaving the nursery she opened more than a decade ago to her older daughter, Catalan doesn't have a job. Instead, she offers a ride almost every day. Her daughter helps pay for gas.

What started as a free ride turned into a counseling session this afternoon in the verdant fields of Redland, 20 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Miami.

"If you don't get into trouble, everything should be fine. But, for example, you want to drink? Do it at home," she told her passenger.

The man, who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally three years ago, only recently stopped driving, citing fears of being stopped by police. He said he's too worried about getting detained and deported to have his identity made public.

Since Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed in January to hold people in jail for even minor offenses if Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants to pick them up, six people arrested on a single charge of driving without a valid license have been turned over to ICE. Four others also charged with another misdemeanor, such as drunken-driving or petty theft, have faced the same fate.

Eight of those ten jailed in Miami-Dade were first-time offenders.

Some authorities have been more lenient. Miami-Dade County Judge Louise Krieger-Martin let a handful of unlicensed drivers go free with citations and orders to take driver's education classes one recent morning.

One of them, Abraham, said he has been stopped twice in the past three months, and was let go with only a ticket after an acquaintance with a license walked by and offered to drive the car to get it off the street. Also from Guatemala and fearing deportation, he spoke on condition his surname not be used.

The Mexican-American Council in Homestead has been advising families that driving isn't worth the risk.

Catalan, who became a citizen after President Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty legalized the status of about 3 million people, says driving others has become her therapy.

"This does me good. I feel like they trust me, and I tell them that they don't have to be scared," she said. "Maybe they feel better, too."

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