Georgians react to judge's decision to halt parts of anti-illegal immigration law

South Georgia's Ronald Barksdale doubts a federal judge’s decision to halt parts of Georgia’s tough new immigration enforcement law will help his farm. It has suffered $250,000 in losses he said are tied to the new law.

John Litland, a supporter of the law from Marietta, predicts the law will win on appeal. He thinks the measure will discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Georgia and taking jobs from U.S. citizens.

In Doraville, illegal immigrant Fidel Hernandez breathed a sigh of relief.

These three men reflect the mix of expectations, hopes and fears Georgians expressed after U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash issued his decision Monday. It’s too early to tell what the precise impact of his ruling will be. But both sides in the debate over illegal immigration in Georgia are making predictions.

On one side, opponents of the law hope Thrash’s decision will diminish its impact on families, farmers and others. The American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigration Law Center and other civil and immigrant rights groups are seeking to block the law in court, arguing it is unconstitutional and would violate civil rights.

Supporters of the measure say it will help prevent illegal immigrants from straining the state’s taxpayer-funded resources, including public schools, jails and hospitals. They believe the law will still be effective despite the judge’s ruling. They point out the judge left most of the law intact, including a provision that requires many businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to ensure their new hires are eligible to work in the United States.

That provision will be phased in starting next year. But several parts of the law are scheduled to start taking effect on Friday, including a provision that would punish people who use fake identification to get a job in Georgia.

The Republican author of the law – state Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City -- said the message has been sent that illegal immigrants are not welcome in Georgia.

“When they choose a state to come to, we don’t want them to choose Georgia,” he said. “We believe that has largely been accomplished.”

In a 45-page decision, Thrash temporarily put on hold the two most controversial parts of the law pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. Those two provisions were also scheduled to take effect Friday. One would authorize police to question certain suspects about their immigration status and arrest illegal immigrants and take them to jail. The other would punish people who – while committing another crime – knowingly harbor or transport illegal immigrants or encourage them to come here.

Atlanta-area immigrants reacted quickly to Thrash’s ruling with a mixture of wariness and relief . Hernandez, for example, said he instantly felt better after his wife called him with the news of the court decision. He said he and his wife and four children are staying put in their Doraville apartment, at least for now.

Before the judge’s ruling, Hernandez was considering moving his family to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, where he has relatives. He crossed the Mexican border illegally more than 20 years ago. His wife is here illegally. So is his 17-year-old son. A handyman, Hernandez drives to work without a license. He was fearful he and his wife could be arrested and deported in connection with new the law.

“I was having a lot of stress,” Hernandez said. “With that [judge’s decision] I’m OK now. I feel a lot better… I don’t think I am going to move now.”

Still, Hernandez said he will keep a close eye on any attempts to appeal the judge’s decision.

Jose “Panda” Carias said he heard similar sentiments expressed on the morning radio show he hosted Tuesday morning on WPOL 610 AM, a Spanish hit music station that broadcasts across the Atlanta area. More than 150 people called his Lawrenceville-based station in the space of one hour concerning the judge’s decision, he said. Some said they were scrapping their plans to flee Georgia because of Thrash’s ruling, Carias said.

“It was really emotional,” he said of the callers. “They felt if the law was passed their families would be separated.”

In South Georgia, farmers fear that even with the court decision they will not have enough workers to harvest their crops. Some have complained the new law is scaring away the migrant Hispanic farm workers they depend on, putting hundreds of millions of dollars in fruit and vegetable crops at risk.

Barksdale said he has already lost $250,000 in crops that could not be picked in time. He usually has 40 workers, but most days he has been averaging less than a dozen. He grows cucumbers, pickles and cabbage on fields in Worth and Tift counties. Going forward, he said, he will probably stick to crops that can be harvested mechanically, such as peanuts and cotton.

Barksdale believes Georgia’s reputation regarding not wanting illegal immigrants has been set for years to come. The injunction won’t do much to change that, he said.

“It’s too little too late,” he said.

Philip Grimes, a farmer in Tifton, said the judge’s decision “ain’t changed nothing. People are leaving. They don’t want to be in Georgia.” Grimes said he is now harvesting cantaloupes but might switch to growing more products that can be harvested mechanically, such as cotton, corn and peanuts.

He had about half the workers he needed when the season started this year, but now has come up to speed. He said he usually grows broccoli in the fall but will wait until August to decide whether to even plant it this year.

Jesus Guerrero is in charge of finding people to harvest crops on three farms in Coffee and Irwin counties. He said he spoke this week to 30 workers who were planning to leave for Michigan. He told them about the judge’s decision.

“They just thanked God. They were glad and happy,” he said. “Some might stay, especially the ones who are situated here. They have children in the schools.”

Supporters of the law are predicting it will be a success, one way or the other.

“I believe they (illegal immigrants) will go to sanctuary states, and we will open up a lot of job opportunities for Americans,” said Litland, a member of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates for the enforcement of immigration and employment laws. “The more we can get these cheaper workers out of the state, the more Americans can get back to work.”

Even if the judge’s decision is not overturned on appeal, the law will still have a huge effect, he said.

“I still think it will be a tremendous help,” Litland said. “But not the same impact.”

Mundo Hispanico staff writer Mario Guevara contributed to this report.