Kemp’s immigration policy could complicate bid for second term

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to tour the border with Mexico.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to tour the border with Mexico.

Gov. Brian Kemp promised to enact sweeping crackdowns on illegal immigration on the 2018 campaign trail, boasting that he would “round up criminal illegals” himself as he pledged to “track and immediately deport” unauthorized immigrants with criminal records.

Those unfulfilled vows now complicate Kemp’s campaign for a second term. He’s facing pressure from fellow conservatives to take more aggressive action to deter those in the country illegally from settling in Georgia, along with the reality that state leaders have no say over federal immigration policy.

The Republican’s trip Wednesday to the U.S. border with Mexico, his third in less than a year, highlighted that challenge. He joined a group of governors to assail President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. But it also reflected a bet that the issue could unite a fractious conservative base torn by former President Donald Trump’s vendetta against Kemp and other party leaders.

Georgia lawmakers could consider restrictive measures when an election-year session reconvenes. U.S. Senate candidate Gary Black is embarking on a long-planned trip to the southwest border later this week, signaling that the issue will factor significantly into the race against Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and other political contests on the 2022 ballot.

And Kemp joined about a dozen other governors to urge Biden to embrace his predecessor’s approach to border security with a 10-point plan advocating several policies that the Democrat has long opposed. Among their requests is a demand that Biden build the “border wall” that Trump failed to deliver and Biden campaigned against.

“Whether it is gangs, human trafficking or deadly drugs, the border crisis directly impacts the lives of hardworking Georgians and this administration must act now,” Kemp said during the brief visit, his third trip to the U.S. border in a year.

Democrats mocked the visit as a brazen attempt to pander to his base, just as they did in May when they poked fun at pictures posted to Kemp’s social media accounts of the governor surveying the Rio Grande instead of, say, the Chattahoochee.

“It’s an election year and he’s just playing politics. He has to get his base behind him,” state Rep. Pete Marin, a Democrat from Duluth, said of the already-raging 2022 race. “We’ve got more pressing issues in the state of Georgia than a photo op on the border of Mexico.”

‘Too much NPR’

The motivation behind the trip to Texas aside, Kemp’s journey was a reminder that the issue of illegal immigration remains a potent force in Republican politics.

Two Economist/YouGov polls conducted this summer found that 84% of Trump supporters “strongly disapproved” of Biden’s immigration agenda. And a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed just 1 in 4 voters approved of Biden’s immigration policy, while two-thirds disapproved.

That sentiment is partly shaped by an increase in border crossings. U.S. immigration agents have made more than 1.5 million apprehensions of unauthorized migrants along the southern border since last October. That’s the most in more than two decades.

Much of the attention has been focused on the Texas city of Del Rio, where thousands of Haitian migrants had been waiting in a makeshift tent city after freely crossing into the U.S. The Biden administration’s pledge to aggressively target the sophisticated networks shuttling migrants across the border falls flat with Georgia Republican officials.

The Biden administration said in September that it would deport the thousands of Haitians who overwhelmed the Texas town.

Still, state Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, said: “When the federal government won’t act, the state governments have to take a stand. Georgia is left battling issues like human trafficking and the overall rise in violent crime, and enforcing immigration laws has to be a part of the solution.”

Immigration is an issue seeping into every level of government. ProPublica recently published a recording of a phone call between Randy Scamihorn, the chair of the Cobb County school board, citing "illegal aliens" as a cause behind the rise in COVID-19 cases. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Credit: Phil Skinner

Even officials with little role in immigration policy frequently raise the issue. The news outlet ProPublica this week published a recording of a phone call in which Randy Scamihorn, chair of the Cobb County school board, cited “illegal aliens” for a potential influx in coronavirus cases.

Told by a parent it’s “completely incorrect,” Scamihorn replied: “You listen to too much NPR now.”

‘Shiny object’

Kemp won office with the help of a promise to deport more immigrants in the country illegally, saying in a provocative TV ad that he would carry out that pledge in his heavy-duty pickup truck if he must. But since he took office in 2019, he’s yet to take major steps to crack down on illegal immigration.

In fact, it was 2011 when Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law the last far-reaching measure aimed at driving out immigrants living illegally in the state. Modeled after a restrictive Arizona law, the Georgia measure triggered economic boycott threats, lengthy federal court challenges and financial losses for the state’s agriculture industry.

Kemp’s most substantive immigration-related step might have been the signing of a bill in 2019 that disbanded an Immigration Enforcement Review Board created by Deal’s sweeping crackdown. The demise of the unpopular initiative was cheered by both civil rights groups and anti-illegal immigration advocates who united to call for it to be dissolved.

A screenshot from Republican Brian Kemp's 2018 ad promising to "deport criminal illegals" in his pickup truck.

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The governor has said he will keep his promise to target illegal immigration, though he hasn’t outlined precisely how he intends to do so. His office said his focus on targeting crime, gangs and human trafficking also directly tie back into his promise to combat illegal immigration.

Already under attack from Trump over his refusal to overturn the election results, some grassroots groups have grown impatient. The Cobb County GOP, once stocked with Kemp allies, voted last week to censure the governor for failing to curb illegal immigration. Other activists are eager to see him take additional steps.

“It should be the federal government’s responsibility, but since they’re not willing to pick up the slack, then unfortunately the state’s going to have to take more aggressive action,” said Marci McCarthy, who chairs the DeKalb County GOP.

The criticism belies Biden’s recent more forceful border policy, which borrowed tactics that could have been straight out of Trump’s playbook. Immigration advocates, in particular, have railed against the expulsion of Haitian migrants massed in Del Rio and the use of a public health immigration rule to clear their encampment.

Charles Kuck, a prominent immigration attorney, said Kemp was in search of a “shiny object” to distract from Trump’s ongoing venomous attacks targeting the governor.

“This is a reelection stunt,” Kuck said. “If he’s going to the border, he’s searching for a solution that does not exist.”