On July 1, Georgia will join the small but growing rank of states that are attempting to sidestep Washington and tackle the issue of illegal immigration themselves.
The new law — the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 — was passed by the General Assembly this spring. It was championed by state lawmakers who argued that the estimated 450,000 illegal immigrants living in Georgia are costing the state money and that federal inaction on the issue forced them to act.
Whether the courts will allow the law to be enforced is still an open question, since numerous civil rights groups have filed suit in federal court to have it overturned, but as of now no judge has ruled on its constitutionality.
And as the start date for the implementation of the law draws nearer, questions and concerns about it appear to be multiplying, particularly in places like Whitfield County where nearly one in three residents are Hispanic.
“I’m getting tons of questions from all sorts of people — employers, employees, people who are legal permanent residents, people who are on visas, people who are undocumented or illegal aliens. And I’m getting a lot of questions from U.S. citizens about how it could affect them,” said Dalton attorney Carlos Calderin, who practices immigration law.
While some of the law’s provisions will be phased in over months and even the next couple of years, the bulk of it will take effect starting next month, and how it is enforced by state and local officials could have a big impact on the future of Dalton for many years to come.
What the law says
As Calderin notes, the biggest issue right now about the new law is understanding what is in it.
Starting July 1:
• Representatives of local and state law enforcement agencies will be able to arrest illegal immigrants and take them to state and federal jails.
• Any person who “while committing another criminal offense, knowingly and intentionally transports or moves an illegal alien in a motor vehicle” may face fines of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
• The state Agriculture Department will begin to study creating a new guest-worker program for Georgia farms. Many Georgia farmers say they face a shortage of workers to harvest their crops, a shortage they say this law has already made worse because even legal Hispanics will not come to the state because they fear harassment.
• Those caught using fake identification to get a job face up to 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
• The state will create an Immigration Enforcement Review Board, with three members appointed by the governor and two each by the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor. Each member will be appointed to a two-year term. The board will investigate any complaints filed by legally registered voters that state or local government officials are failing to enforce state immigration law. The board may impose remedial actions on those officials it finds guilty, including fines of up to $5,000.
• Government officials found violating state laws forcing local governments and state government agencies to use the federal E-Verify program, which helps determine if new workers have the government’s permission to work in this country, could face fines of up to $10,000 and could be removed from office.
Starting Jan. 1, 2012:
• State and local government agencies must force those applying for public benefits to provide at least one “secure and verifiable” ID. The state attorney general’s office must post a list of acceptable documents on its website by Aug. 1, 2011. Consular identification cards will not be accepted, such as those issued by Mexican consulates to that country’s citizens residing outside of Mexico.
• Firms with 500 or more employees must use the federal E-Verify system.
Businesses with 100 or more employees must use E-Verify beginning on July 1, 2012. And firms with at least 11 employees must use E-Verify beginning on July 1, 2013.
Calderin says things aren’t likely to change much for illegal immigrants in Whitfield County.
“One of the most important aspects of this law is an attempt to implement statewide what has already been implemented here in Whitfield County,” Calderin said, referring to the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office’s participation in the federal 287(g) program, which allows jailers to determine if people who are booked into the jail are in the country illegally.
“That is already being done here, so that really isn’t changing much,” he said.
But America Gruner, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders, said “there’s a lot of confusion and questions” about the law in the Hispanic community. In particular, she said, many are asking if law enforcement can stop them and demand to see their ID.
Calderin said police aren’t legally able to stop someone just to ask for their ID and this law won’t change that.
“One of the things that makes us Americans unique is that in most other countries you have to have a national ID and carry it with you at all times,” said Calderin. “In this country, we’ve never required people to carry ID. One big exception to that is that federal law says that if you are a legal permanent resident you have to carry your resident’s card at all times. Now you can be cited for driving without a license. That’s required. ”
Under a new interpretation of Georgia law handed down by the state attorney general’s office earlier this year, those found driving without a license must now be taken into custody and fingerprinted. That means that, in Whitfield County, illegal immigrants caught driving without a license could be deported.
One section of the law that seems to have created quite a bit of concern is that making it illegal to knowingly transport an illegal immigrant.
“This is the irony: The mayor and The Daily Citizen (in Tuesday’s editorial) are lecturing people to walk or ride if they do not have a license, but now resident family members cannot give rides to undocumented family members without fear of being charged under the new law,” said Father Paul Williams, pastor of Dalton’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. “For churches this is a concern as well, because our doors are open to all, and we offer assistance to all, without regards to race, nationality, legal status or religion. However, the law does require that this be done knowingly, and since the government does not issue ‘illegal alien identification cards’ we have no way of knowing anyone’s legal status without having a court order in our hands.”
State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said the portion of the law making it illegal to transport an illegal immigrant tracks the language of a similar federal law.
“So if you violate this law, you would already be in violation of a federal law,” he said. “I guess there is some prosecutorial discretion. But I don’t think you’d be penalized for giving somebody a ride to work. I think the target is people who are actively engaged in transporting illegal aliens across borders.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups have filed suit in federal court to overturn the law. The governments of 11 countries including Mexico have filed briefs supporting that effort. Similar laws in Arizona and Utah have been placed on hold by federal courts but a previous Arizona law requiring companies to use E-Verify was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia legislators believe their law will pass constitutional challenges.
Expected stories in “An Uncertain Future”:
Today: Questions surround the state’s new immigration law.
Monday: Illegal immigrants in Dalton face a choice: Stay or move.
Tuesday: The law enforcement perspective.
Thursday: A recent area high graduate who was born in Mexico but has lived here since childhood faces the prospect of deportation.
Sunday: Are people fleeing the area because of the new law?