Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday signed an executive order blocking the city jail from housing more federal detainees facing deportation, citing her objections to the separation of immigrant families on the southwest border.
The Democratic mayor announced her decision just minutes after President Donald Trump signed his own executive order reversing his administration’s controversial policy in favor of detaining families together during their immigration proceedings. It was unclear late Wednesday how Trump’s move would affect Atlanta’s decision.
“The inhumane action of family separation demands that Atlanta act now,” Bottoms said in a statement. “On behalf of the people of Atlanta, I am calling upon the Trump Administration and Congress to enact humane and comprehensive measures that address our broken immigration system.”
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Meanwhile, Georgia’s Republican U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, signed onto a GOP immigration bill essentially codifying Trump’s order. They said the bill would allow parents and children to stay together “while ensuring the integrity of our nation’s immigration laws.”
“President Trump wants to enforce the law and keep families together, and this bill does both,” said Perdue, who huddled with Trump and other GOP senators earlier Wednesday.
Trump signed his executive order at the White House, telling reporters: “I feel very strongly about it.”
“I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it,” he said. “We don’t like to see families separated. At the same time, we don’t want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem.”
The executive order came as House lawmakers prepared to vote on a pair of GOP-authored immigration proposals seeking to address the family-separation issue, bolster border security and find a legal pathway for “Dreamers,” young immigrants who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children. Neither bill is expected to win support from Democrats.
Monroe Republican Jody Hice, a former pastor who is among the delegation’s most conservative members, defended Trump’s action on the border, saying the president has simply been enforcing the law.
“The best way for families to stay together coming to this country is to come here the right way, not to come here breaking the law,” he said. “You break the law, there will be consequences. That’s what’s happening now.”
U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, said the government needs to adjudicate immigration cases faster, take measures to prevent human trafficking and build a border wall.
“It has to be a holistic fix to the issue or we’re just going to be revisiting this over and over again, and I don’t want to see those kids staying in a detention center that is overcrowded,” he said.
Republicans said the immigration plans that have been floated by Democrats will do little to stem the tide of immigrants arriving at the southern border.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, fired back. He said Trump’s executive action “certainly boosts the stock of the private prison industrial complex” by “putting people in detention for long stints of time at the expense of the American taxpayer.”
“What President Trump has done is to signal to refugees across the world that your presence is not welcomed here in America,” he said. The government, Johnson said, should instead take the time to study the root causes that have caused migrants to flee their countries, including America’s war on drugs.
Atlanta has long come under fire from immigrant-rights advocates for holding detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Wednesday, the city jail was holding 205 of them. Atlanta is paid $78 per day for each of them, collecting $7.5 million through this arrangement so far this fiscal year. The city collected $6.7 million last fiscal year.
Last year, then-Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration defended its detention policy by saying the city could guarantee immigrants “far superior treatment than at other facilities, including access to health care, access to their family members and a network of resources found in our city and the metropolitan area.”
Bottoms said that while the city’s arrangement “may seem hypocritical to my personal stance, the reality of the detention of those seeking legal status in our country is most often not if they are detained, but where they will be held.”
“I am concerned that the city’s refusal to accept detainees will result in individuals being sent to private, substandard, for-profit facilities in the state,” she said without identifying those locations, “as these facilities do not offer publicly-funded access to legal representation that may help detainees successfully challenge their immigration status, but the inhumane action of family separation demands that Atlanta act now.”
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor, posted his displeasure with Atlanta’s move on Twitter Wednesday, while referring to his legal battle with Decatur over its decision to limit its cooperation with ICE.
“I have led to outlaw and defund sanctuary cities and WE WILL uphold our laws,” he tweeted.
Project South, which advocates for immigrants, praised the mayor’s decision.
“For years, we had been calling upon the City of Atlanta to match its rhetoric of being welcoming towards immigrants with action,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director for Project South. “It is good to see that the city has finally realized that it cannot claim to be a welcoming space at the same as it is making profits off of the detention of immigrants.”
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