Georgia gubernatorial hopefuls put a bull’s-eye on illegal immigration

Federal immigration officers take Jose Serrano (center), a Mexican national with felony convictions, into custody in 2016 in Austell. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Federal immigration officers take Jose Serrano (center), a Mexican national with felony convictions, into custody in 2016 in Austell. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia’s Republican candidates for governor are racing to outdo each other with bold promises of cracking down on illegal immigration as they seek to protect their right flanks ahead of the GOP primary.

Each of the five leading GOP candidates has outlined plans echoing President Donald Trump’s tough talk on the issue. This week, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp proposed creating a database for tracking unauthorized immigrants with criminal convictions and for speeding up their deportations. And last week, the state Senate passed a measure backed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle that would require state judges and local sheriff’s deputies to help with federal immigration enforcement.

RELATED: Georgia bill: Police, courts must help with immigration enforcement

Meanwhile, state Sen. Michael Williams wants to withhold state funding from counties that don't apply to join the federal 287(g) program, which authorizes local officials to help enforce federal immigration laws. While mentioning his experience as a Navy SEAL combating the Islamic State, businessman Clay Tippins is calling for new law enforcement intelligence-sharing programs for cracking down on illegal immigration.

And former state Sen. Hunter Hill is mirroring Trump’s opposition to so-called sanctuary cities, which don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. At the same time, Hill blames illegal immigration for increased spending on welfare programs.

“The reality is, career politicians created illegal immigration,” said Hill, who has called for sweeping spending cuts to government programs. “When you pay your own citizens to do nothing, you create a demand in the lower levels of the economy and it draws people who are not coming here legally.”

Such proposals are proven vote-getters in Georgia, a conservative state that has consistently elected Republican governors since 2002, said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University and a former GOP consultant.

“Illegal immigration is an issue that polls strongly with Republicans generally but also very strongly with likely GOP voters,” said Swint, who directs KSU’s School of Government and International Affairs.

Whoever wins the GOP primary likely won’t switch gears much on this issue in the general election, Swint predicted.

“Once they head to the general election, they will pay attention to being a little less strident in their tone, but I don’t think they will change very much on the issue,” Swint said. “They are confident that general election voters will look favorably on it as well.”

Critics, however, say the Republican proposals inaccurately portray all unauthorized immigrants as criminals. They point to a 2015 Cato Institute report that says immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. For its report, Cato, a libertarian group based in Washington, cited a 2007 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that concludes immigrants are incarcerated at one-fifth the rate of native-born people.

Opponents of the GOP measures also worry they will undermine trust between immigrants and local police, plus deter immigrants from reporting crimes to authorities and attending important court hearings. Further, critics say the proposals could violate constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure.

Immigration law is notoriously complex, so it would be impractical to require judges and local police officers to determine a person’s immigration status, Tracie Klinke, the chairwoman of the Georgia-Alabama chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, wrote in a letter to state lawmakers this week.

Klinke cited several complex situations that could prove thorny for Georgia authorities: people who are born outside the United States but derive citizenship through their U.S. citizen parents, lawful permanent residents with expired green cards and immigrants who are applying for visas reserved for crime victims who cooperate with police.

“The local judges are tasked with enough already just to deal with criminality,” she said. “But to throw immigration on top of it and the consequences, which are federal — it is just going to be a really heavy lift for them. We already have immigration courts designed to handle that.”

The two Democrats vying for their party’s nomination, ex-House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and former state Rep. Stacey Evans, oppose the Republicans’ proposals and warn their tough talk could hinder the state’s business climate. Both have urged Trump and Congress to extend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that is temporarily shielding hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation and allowing them to work legally in the United States.

Kemp, the Republican secretary of state, has put illegal immigration front and center in his campaign. He launched his bid for governor with a pledge to combat illegal immigration and has honed his policy over the eight months. His latest proposal, a plan to create a “criminal alien database,” came a day after he launched a somber TV ad invoking the names of Americans killed in car accidents or violent crimes by immigrants who were not in the country legally.

The database, Kemp said, would aggregate data from state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and track the number of convictions, arrests and deportations connected to people who are in the country illegally. Local law enforcement officials, prosecutors and courts would supply the information to the Georgia Crime Information Center, which would publish that information on its website.

The database would help law enforcement officials recognize threats, detect trends and monitor gang activity, he said, to make unauthorized immigrants “think twice before entering the Peach State to harm and terrorize our citizens.” Kemp would also require that law enforcement officials transport unauthorized immigrants to federal facilities for deportation.

MORE: Kemp plans ‘criminal alien database’ in Georgia gov run

Democrats swiftly rebuked Kemp’s proposal. DuBose Porter, the state party’s chairman, said the idea “does nothing more than incite bigotry and fear.” He invoked the inadvertent release of confidential data by Kemp’s office to media outlets and political parties.

“Brian Kemp is nothing but incompetent when it comes to maintaining databases,” Porter said, “as he is responsible for leaking every one of our Social Security numbers to both public and private organizations.”

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