Georgia to start enforcing key part of its immigration law

Georgia state and local police may start enforcing one of the most controversial parts of the state’s immigration law for the first time now that a federal judge has lifted an injunction he placed against it.

The statute — nicknamed by critics as “the show-me-your-papers law” — gives police the option to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. It also empowers police to detain people determined to be in the country illegally and take them to jail.

Partly modeled after a similar measure in Arizona, Georgia’s law is aimed at protecting taxpayer resources by pushing illegal immigrants out of the state. Georgia has the ninth-largest population among states. But it ranked sixth last year for the estimated number of illegal immigrants living within its borders, at 440,000, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash placed Georgia’s law on hold before it could go into effect last year after civil and immigrant rights activists sued to block it. Critics say the statute is unconstitutional and that it could interfere with the nation’s foreign diplomacy. They also say it could lead to racial profiling even though the statute explicitly prohibits that.

The state appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which reversed Thrash’s ruling in August. On Tuesday, Thrash signed an order complying with the appeals court’s decision. Thrash’s order, attorneys in the case said, lifted the preliminary injunction he issued against the law last year.

Thrash’s order could represent the end of the long-running legal battle over this law. But the activists who sued to block it say they won’t hesitate to file suit again if they find evidence police are violating people’s civil rights through prolonged traffic stops.

“Any type of violations of individuals’ rights — including prolonged detention — is something we will be looking for, documenting and will bring back to court,” said Karen Tumlin, a managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, which is part of a coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups that sued to block the statute.

The courts have also shown concern about the possibility of civil rights violations. For example, in sustaining Arizona’s similar law in June, the U.S. Supreme Court said detaining people “solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns.”

State officials said during the court battle over the law that police already have the authority to check the immigration status of people they have detained in connection with other crimes. State Rep. Matt Ramsey, who sponsored the law, underscored that it is discretionary and predicted police agencies across the state will enforce it differently, based on their manpower.

“It will be on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis,” he said in an interview last week.

The same has been true in Alabama, where a similar law has been in effect since last year. Some police agencies there 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.

Atlanta-area police agencies had put off training and other planning to enforce the law because it had been tied up in federal court.

Like Ramsey, Lt. Col. Ron Hunton, the field operations commander for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, pointed out Tuesday the law is discretionary for police. Cherokee deputies typically contact federal immigration authorities when they are attempting to verify suspects’ legal status, he said. When deputies confirm suspects are in the country illegally, Hunton said, they contact the local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. ICE officials could then ask the county to notify them before the suspects are released from jail so they may have the chance to detain and deport them.

“We have limited space in our detention facility and certainly do not have the resources to deal solely with immigration issues,” Hunton said in an email.

A Gwinnett County police spokesman said his agency doesn’t see the need to change its policies or procedures since it already participates in a federal program — called 287(g) – that gives some county authorities immigration enforcement powers.

Thrash’s order comes as state officials are considering whether to appeal an 11th Circuit Court decision against another part of Georgia’s immigration law. That provision would punish people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing other crimes. The appeals court ruled the measure is pre-empted by federal law, which already prohibits such activities.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is pledging to attempt a comprehensive immigration overhaul after his inauguration. Among his goals: creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Ramsey predicted such a change would not affect Georgia’s statute because it was written with the understanding that “federal immigration law is evolving.”

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