ATLANTA (AP) - During a recent Georgia GOP gubernatorial forum, moderators never brought up the topic of illegal immigration, but that didn't stop Secretary of State Brian Kemp from referring to "criminal illegal aliens" four times while on stage.
"These people are killing our children, either with drugs or with guns or with deadly assaults," Kemp said during the March 10 gathering in Norcross. "It's time that we put a stop to that."
Kemp, whose first TV ad of the campaign begins with him invoking the names of Americans killed by people living in the country illegally, is hardly alone in highlighting the issue.
As seven Republicans jockey for their party's nomination, illegal immigration is one thing that the leading candidates largely agree on: Georgia may have some of the toughest laws targeting illegal immigration in the country, but it needs to do more, they say. Critics, however, argue that deportation is a federal issue, and tougher laws create an environment in which immigrants are hesitant to report crimes.
Immigration attorneys also question the efficacy of some of the proposals, calling them poorly sketched-out ideas that overlook the complexity of immigration law in an attempt to rile up support from primary voters.
"The current political environment has allowed for the demonization of the immigrant community as a whole," said Tracie Klinke, chair of the Georgia-Alabama chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "That's unfortunate because it just creates this atmosphere of fear, which motivates people to vote."
State Sen. Michael Williams of Cumming wants every Georgia county to join with the six sheriff's offices in the state that have adopted a program that trains and authorizes local officers to carry out immigration enforcement duties. Currently, 75 law enforcement agencies in 20 states have adopted the program, but no state mandates it.
In March, Kemp unveiled his own proposal to establish a state database that would track crimes committed by people living in the country illegally. He said Texas already has a similar database.
By documenting suspects' arrest records, physical markings and gang affiliations in one comprehensive database that's shared with federal authorities, investigators would be better equipped to uncover gang networks and deport criminals, Kemp said.
Clay Tippins has also made fighting gangs a key part of his platform. Gangs such as MS-13 commit murders, operate human trafficking rings and smuggle deadly narcotics into Georgia, Tippins said.
John King is police chief in Doraville, a city just outside of Atlanta with a large immigrant population. King says gangs are a concern in his community, but they often consist of second- or third-generation Americans.
"The first-generation immigrants are too busy working at construction sites and restaurants - they're too tired to be committing crimes," King said. "The typical 'gang-banger' that we bump into is a U.S. citizen. I wish we could deport them, but we can't."
Kemp also wants to require, rather than merely allow, local authorities to transport suspects living in the country illegally to federal deportation centers. That notion concerns King, though, who says he has a good relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"When ICE wants somebody, they come and pick them up," King said. "If transporting these folks keeps my officers from answering 911 calls in my community, I'm not sure our citizens would want to be financing that."
Immigration attorney Charles Kuck said Kemp's proposed transportation requirement ignores the fact that the detention centers have a set budget and a limited number of beds.
Kemp acknowledges that some of the plan's details must be worked out with federal immigration authorities, but said he's sincere about combatting crime and he takes criticism from immigration advocates as a badge of honor.
Most of Kemp's rivals agree with his proposals - they just think they're better suited to carry them out.
Tippins, a businessman and former Navy SEAL, argues that his experience tracking ISIS makes him uniquely qualified to take down criminal networks.
The Georgia legislature has passed several laws in recent years aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Among them is a measure to target so-called sanctuary policies.
The state may not have any self-proclaimed "sanctuary cities," but multiple candidates assert that the metro Atlanta city of Decatur and other communities have adopted illegal sanctuary laws.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is among the front-runners to succeed term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal. Last year Cagle filed a complaint against Decatur with the Immigration Enforcement Review Board, arguing that the city's officers are violating the state's anti-sanctuary law by not detaining immigrants unless ICE issues a warrant. The city says its longstanding policy doesn't break the law, and the review board hasn't yet issued a ruling on the issue.
Cagle said his experience going after Decatur separates him from the pack.
"Others can talk about (holding these communities responsible), but there's only one person who has acted on it," he said.
Like Tippins, ex-state Sen. Hunter Hill, a former Army Ranger, also points to his experience in the military. Hill said he took an oath to defend the Constitution as a soldier and will protect the rule of law as governor.
"We're just trying to make sure that our laws are upheld, our borders are secure, our people are protected," Hill said. "It's not rocket science."
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