Casey Cagle personally accuses Decatur of defying state immigration law

Immigration Enforcement Review Board member Phil Kent at the board's first meeting in 2011. AJC file

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Immigration Enforcement Review Board member Phil Kent at the board's first meeting in 2011. AJC file

To call the city of Decatur the most liberal enclave in the most liberal county in Georgia requires no imagination. Or even exaggeration.

Exactly one year ago, this community of 4.4 square miles and 22,000 souls (along with co-conspirators in Avondale Estates) cast 86 percent of its votes for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

Support in DeKalb County at large registered a mere 80 percent for Clinton.

The numbers help explain why the city has become a punching bag for a leading candidate for governor. Who is now prepping for a Republican primary in which it is never too early to display one’s conservative biceps to supporters of Donald Trump.

On Monday, in his capacity as an ordinary private citizen who just happens to have a very nice office in the state Capitol, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle personally accused the city of Decatur of violating a state law that bars local governments from providing sanctuary and succor to illegal immigrants.

The accusation was lodged with the state Immigration Enforcement Review Board, a body that may be known to six or seven people in the state – but only if you count the seven people who serve on it. The board, intended as an immigration watchdog focused on local governments, has handled all of 20 cases in the six years of its existence.

Until Cagle filed his complaint, 19 of the 20 complaints had been filed by a single individual — D.A. King, president and founder of the Dustin Inman Society, a nonprofit organization the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “nativist extremist” group.

That said, even before he saw the charges put forth by Cagle on Monday, IERB Chairman Shawn Hanley declared the situation in Decatur to be worth his board’s attention.

The chairman wasn’t speaking of illegal immigrants loosed on the population after being arrested for murder or DUI. Decatur has no city jail – just two small, temporary holding cells. Its suspects are quickly trucked to the DeKalb County jail.

Nor has the city’s police department refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. “To our best recollection, we have never had an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detainer request,” said Mayor Patti Garrett.

But on Sept. 29, the police chief and city manager of Decatur made a change in the police employee manual, putting into writing what they said had been a longstanding policy. Its officers would only hold suspects on warrants issued by judges. From the General Order Manual:

“In particular, the Decatur Police Department shall not arrest, hold, extend the detention of, transfer custody of, or transport anyone solely on the basis of an immigration detainer or an administrative immigration warrant.”

Any officer who violates that provision is subject to discipline, according to the manual – which the lieutenant governor says would amount to punishing a cop for “fully communicating and cooperating” with federal authorities. This is something that Decatur officials deny.

Even before filing his accusation with the immigration board, Cagle had already asked the state auditor to begin toting up the state funding that Decatur would forfeit should it refuse to come to terms.

This, in turn, prompted state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, to write to Attorney General Chris Carr on behalf of the city of Decatur. Among her questions:

— Does that paragraph mentioned above violate state law as alleged by the lieutenant governor?

— “Under Georgia law, including the state Constitution, what authority does the lieutenant governor have to direct a local government police department to amend its operating policies?”

That last one raises a decent point. Though often reduced to hamburger, local control is – at least officially – a sacred cow in the state Capitol.

On Tuesday, Carr replied to Parent. To no one’s surprise, the attorney general said he couldn’t answer her questions – given that his office represents the immigration board that Decatur will now have to face.

There was another unanswered question in Parent’s letter: Why Decatur? The city of Atlanta has a similar policy, as do other jurisdictions.

Competing answers come to mind. One is that Atlanta has a mayor who will hit back if punched, and has resources to do it. On the other hand, Kasim Reed and Casey Cagle also rose to influence within the same Senate chamber. They’re friends. At one point, a photo of Reed hung in the lieutenant governor’s quarters. It may still be there.

Personally, I think Decatur’s dilemma is rooted in last year’s election results.

The Republican primaries for governor in Georgia are usually a footrace to the right. Secretary of State Brian Kemp has already put illegal immigration at the top of his stump speech. Hunter Hill, the former state senator, and Michael Williams, a current state senator, are likely to move in the same direction.

In the coming months, Cagle is likely to endure grassroots criticism for his relationship to the business wing of the Georgia GOP. But if the lieutenant governor can say he brought the most liberal city in the most liberal county in Georgia to heel on a fine point of immigration law — well, that could be proof to many a Trump voter that he’s one of them.