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Kemp nixes controversial immigration panel

Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board would be dissolved if Gov. Brian Kemp signs House Bill 553, which state lawmakers quietly approved on the final day of the legislative session. Brant Sanderlin bsanderlin@ajc.com
Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board would be dissolved if Gov. Brian Kemp signs House Bill 553, which state lawmakers quietly approved on the final day of the legislative session. Brant Sanderlin bsanderlin@ajc.com

Gov. Brian Kemp has quietly approved a law dissolving a controversial immigration review board that was designed to hold local officials accountable but mostly fielded complaints from a conservative activist.

The measure to disband the Immigration Enforcement Review Board was approved unanimously by lawmakers with little debate, and Kemp’s office said Monday he signed the legislation into law.

The panel was empowered to probe complaints from the public about violations of immigration-related state laws. With members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, it can also issue subpoenas, place witnesses under oath and slap fines.

>> Bill Tracker: See which bills Gov. Kemp has signed, vetoed

But the panel came under criticism from civil rights groups who said it had become a tool of harassment for anti-immigration groups. Of the 20 complaints the board received in its first six years, all but one came from D.A. King, a longtime anti-illegal immigration activist. Rarely did the complaints yield a fine.

The fight over the board also was a factor in last year’s Republican race for governor.

Then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle filed a complaint with the board that alleged the city of Decatur was creating sanctuaries for criminals as he was running for governor. Local officials accused Cagle of pandering to conservatives with a baseless claim.

Decatur soon fired back with a lawsuit alleging the board was violating the state's transparency laws. The board ultimately settled with the city, agreeing to make its proceedings more public and pay Decatur $12,000 in attorney fees and other costs.

The fallout left the board without its chairman and a longtime board member, who both resigned after Decatur's attorney questioned whether they had overstayed their term in office.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, questioned whether the board had overstayed its welcome. State Rep. Katie Dempsey, the Rome Republican who sponsored House Bill 553, called the measure to repeal the board a "timely" one.

"It has served its purpose," she said in April, "and it was actually not functioning as originally intended."

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