Enforcement of Georgia’s immigration law will vary

Georgia’s immigration law

Georgia’s Legislature last year approved sweeping legislation to crack down on illegal immigration. Called House Bill 87, the law gives police the option to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. It also:

  • Severely punishes people who use fake identification to get a job in Georgia. People convicted of this crime could face up to 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
  • Created a state panel to investigate complaints about local and state government officials not enforcing state immigration-related laws.
  • Forces state and local government agencies to require people applying for public benefits — such as professional licenses, grants and loans — to provide at least one "secure and verifiable" document, such as a passport or state-issued driver's license.
  • Requires certain employers to use the federal E-Verify work authorization program to determine whether their new hires are eligible to work legally in the United States. This provision is being phased in based on the size of the employer. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees are exempt.

Some state and local police might decide not to enforce a central part of Georgia’s sweeping immigration law, and those who do will rely heavily on federal authorities for information, state law enforcement officials are predicting.

For example, the Georgia State Patrol is emphasizing the law is discretionary and is letting its officers decide whether to investigate the immigration status of suspects they encounter. An agency spokesman said troopers would contact federal officials to determine the legal status of their suspects.

At the same time, critics of the statute — which critics call the show-me-your-papers law — are vowing to sue if they spot any civil rights violations as police begin to carry it out. They also worry police won’t have adequate training concerning the nation’s complex immigration laws and will mistakenly detain immigrants who have a right to be here.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Police Academy is preparing to help keep officers on the right side of the law with additional training.

Georgia’s law gives 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 authorizes police to detain people determined to be in the country illegally and take them to jail.

On Tuesday, a federal judge lifted a preliminary injunction he had issued against the law last year. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash lifted the injunction after the state appealed successfully to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Civil and immigrant rights activists had sued to block the law, saying it is pre-empted by federal law and is therefore unconstitutional.

Supporters of the law said it was necessary to protect taxpayer resources.

Wally Marchant, the Georgia Police Academy’s legal training section supervisor, said some police agencies might not enforce the law because of limited manpower, tight budgets and other crime-fighting priorities.

“Because it is discretionary, there are going to be some agencies that are not even going to mess with it,” he said. “Nothing.”

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, talked about how the law could be enforced in farming communities, which rely heavily on migrant Hispanic laborers.

“Clearly, the police chiefs are not going to encourage their people to stop everybody and arrest them because they don’t have the right paperwork,” he said. “They are going to use a lot of discretion because the economy of the whole community relies upon that.”

Lt. Kermit Stokes of the Georgia State Patrol underscored how the law is optional for police.

“We cannot and will not force them to attempt (an investigation). That would be up to the individual trooper,” he said. “I would expect that you will see some variances both by the region of the state and the individuals who are assigned to those areas.”

Stokes added that his agency hasn’t determined whether it will draft a new policy covering how to enforce the law. As for training, Stokes said his agency’s legal staff has distributed information about the law to troopers.

Atlanta police had no immediate comment on whether or how they will enforce the law. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment. DeKalb County police said they are reviewing the court decision and evaluating how to train their officers. A Fulton County police spokesman said his agency will work with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police on developing training and policies. Gwinnett County police said they don’t see the need to change their policies since they already participate in a federal program — called 287(g) — that gives some county authorities immigration enforcement powers.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office also has a 287(g) program operating in its jail. The Cobb Police Department plans to let its officers decide whether to check the immigration status of suspects. Meanwhile, the department plans to begin training its officers on the law some time in the coming days. Cobb Police Chief John Houser underscored how the statute bars authorities from investigating the immigration status of people who contact police to report crimes.

“We feel it is a positive thing,” he said. “If they see a crime, if they want to report a crime or if they are a victim of a crime, we want them to feel comfortable to contact us.”

Georgia is not alone. In Alabama, where a similar law has been in effect since last year, some police agencies are enforcing the law while others are not. For example, the police chief in Clanton — a small town between Montgomery and Birmingham — said he stopped enforcing the law partly because it sometimes takes hours for federal authorities to respond to his officers’ queries about the immigration status of suspects.

Local immigration attorneys worry local police are not equipped to deal with federal immigration law, parts of which are exceedingly complicated. They wonder, for example, how police will treat people who don’t have legal status but still have a right to remain in the U.S. because the Obama administration has given them a two-year reprieve from deportation.

“Most immigration lawyers don’t know all the law, much less immigration officers, much less local police,” said Glenn Fogle, a local immigration attorney. “… A lot of people are going to be arrested who shouldn’t be arrested in the first place.”

Fogle and other critics of the law said they will closely watch how local police enforce it. Of particular concern to critics of the law is the possibility of racial profiling — even though the statute explicitly prohibits that — and unlawful search and seizure.

“This will be watched by all of us who deal with immigrant rights — very, very carefully,” said Carolina Antonini, a local immigration attorney who teaches at Georgia State University.

The civil rights groups that sued to block the law that contains the show-me-your-papers provisions say it will violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It is unlikely someone could be successful with such a claim in court based broadly on a lack of uniform enforcement of the law in Georgia, said David Martin, who teaches immigration and constitutional law at the University of Virginia.

“A court would probably look at it and say, ‘Do [the police] have a rational basis for doing that,’” said Martin, who served as general counsel for the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “And that is a pretty easy test to satisfy. One jurisdiction could talk about its level of resources or certain other parts of their crime-control strategies.”

The Georgia Police Academy already trains police how to avoid constitutional rights violations, said Marchant, the academy’s legal training section supervisor. But the academy will emphasize those lessons as it teaches officers about the new immigration law.

The head of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, which includes the academy, issued a statement about the additional training this week.

“This will ensure that all officers, from front-line patrolmen to experienced, high-ranking supervisors, will be trained” on the state’s immigration law, said Tim Bearden, the center’s director.

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