Training delayed for enforcing state immigration provision

Second in a two-part series.

In the first part of this series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found uneven enforcement of provisions of Alabama’s new immigration law that are similar to ones expected to soon take effect in Georgia.

Atlanta-area police are postponing plans to enforce a hotly debated part of Georgia’s immigration law now that the measure is tied up — once again — in federal court.

At issue is a statute — nicknamed the show-me-your-papers law — that would give police the option to investigate the immigration status of suspects they believe have committed state or federal crimes and who cannot provide identification or other information that could help police identify them. It also would empower police to detain people determined to be in the country illegally and take them to jail.

Police were preparing to start enforcing the law as soon as this week after a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled in favor of it last month. But under court rules, the measure went back on hold last week when Georgia asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a decision it made against a related state immigration law.

Forsyth and Cherokee county sheriff’s deputies are among those now putting off training and other planning to enforce the law. It doesn’t make sense to start drafting a policy for it, Forsyth Sheriff Ted Paxton said, when the legal battle is not over.

“We are simply just in a holding pattern,” Paxton said. “Until [the legal case] is resolved, it is very difficult for us to craft any type of policy because there are a lot of unknowns.”

State officials were planning to teach the new law to officers Monday, but they postponed that training after learning the law will remain on hold.

“If I talk about it in class, officers may walk away thinking they can do it,” said Wally Marchant, supervisor of the legal training section at the Georgia Police Academy. “And I don’t want that to happen.”

Georgia’s law is modeled on a stringent one Arizona enacted in 2010. Both laws are aimed at encouraging illegal immigrants to leave those states through what proponents call “attrition through enforcement.” A Pew Hispanic Center estimate says Georgia was home to 425,000 illegal immigrants in 2010, compared with an estimated 400,000 in Arizona.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil and immigrant rights groups sued to block Georgia’s law last year, saying it is unconstitutional and would lead to racial profiling. A federal district judge put the law on hold. The state appealed. Last month, the appeals court ruled in favor of the state. In its ruling, the appeals court pointed out that the state’s law prohibits racial profiling.

Georgia is now asking that appeals court to reconsider its decision against a related state immigration law.

In the days leading up to the latest tie-up in court, other police agencies indicated they were not ready to begin enforcing the law. Gwinnett police, for example, said this month that they could not say when or how they would apply the law until the county’s Law Department has “reviewed the complete bill after all issues have been resolved from the state.”

“Once that has been done, we will review the final law and determine if any of our current policies and procedures will change,” said Cpl. Edwin Ritter, a police spokesman.

DeKalb police said this month that they were developing a policy on how to apply the law. And now that the law is on hold again? Police spokeswoman Mekka Parish said: “We will continue to monitor legislation and plan accordingly.”

Some police emphasized that doing immigration status checks is optional under the law.

“The provision authorizes, but does not require, the department to investigate the immigration status of individuals who cannot produce adequate identification to prove citizenship,” Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said, “provided probable cause exists that the individual committed a crime.”

Georgia State Patrol Lt. Kermit Stokes said enforcing the law will be up to each patrolman. “That is up to the trooper’s discretion,” he said.

Meanwhile, court observers sharply disagree with the state attorney general’s decision to ask the appeals court for a rehearing on another part of the immigration law. That provision would punish people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing other crimes. State officials disagree with the court’s ruling that the measure is pre-empted by federal law, which already prohibits such activities.

“I fully believe the attorney general is right on the law in this instance,” said state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, the law’s author. Ramsey said the measure’s supporters appreciate Attorney General Sam Olens “firmly defending Georgia’s constitutional right to legislatively address critical issues facing our state.”

Karen Tumlin, a managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, said the appeals court’s decision is consistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June that went against some of Arizona’s immigration laws.

“Other states considering similar provisions,” she said, “should be warned that these provisions will face fierce legal battles and that they only serve to divide communities.”