Georgia has become the newest state to write its own rules on enforcing immigration law. Despite clauses aimed at avoiding racial profiling, legal immigrants are still nervous.
On a sunny day in late March, Fernando and Yolanda Villasana drove 160 miles from their home in Tifton, Georgia, to the gold-domed capitol building in Atlanta.
The Villasanas, who moved to the United States from Mexico more than 20 years ago, joined about 5,000 people squeezed into a single city block before the capitol. Chanting in English and Spanish, they protested legislation aimed at driving undocumented immigrants out of the Peach State.
The Villasanas are legal residents, yet they worry the bill opens the door to a police crackdown they too will feel.
“They look at us because we wear boots, we wear sombreros,” said Villasana, a stocky 46 year old with sun-weathered skin. “But we are suspicious—why? For being the color of cinnamon?”
On May 13, Gov. Nathan Deal signed H.B. 87 into law. The final draft of the law allows police to investigate the immigration status of any criminal suspect who cannot show proof of being in the country legally.
In practice, police could to dig deeper into the status of anyone they suspect of running red light, who does not have a license in the car. Police can then take criminal suspects who cannot show documentation to jail. The law requires authorities to make a “reasonable effort” to verify the legal status of everyone booked into a county or city jail.
Different from Arizona
Supporters believe that with the help of careful drafting, the bill will withstand court challenges. Georgia's bill left out the clause in S.B. 1070 that allowed Arizona authorities to stop people solely on suspicion they were undocumented.
Georgia's law allows checks only on people suspected first of violating state law.
Critics nevertheless believe the law will suffer the fate of similar legislation elsewhere on the grounds that it usurps federal authority over the enforcement of immigration laws, and that it leads to racial profiling.
Georgia's ACLU has already condemned the law as “unconstitutional” and “show-me-your papers harassment.”
“Racial profiling laws similar to H.B. 87 have been blocked by federal courts in Arizona and Utah, and we remain confident that this bill will suffer a similar fate,” the organization said in a press statement.
In addition to changing rules for law enforcement, the Georgia law requires private employers to run new hires through E-Verify, a federal database that checks work status. It imposes jail time and hefty fines those who transport undocumented immigrants or “entice” them to the state for profit, and increases penalties for using false papers to get a job.
At the Atlanta protest, the signs conveyed the anger and distrust among the state's growing immigrant population.
“We are workers. We are not criminals,” one sign read. “We are not delinquents. We pay taxes,” proclaimed another.
The protest left legislators unmoved. After heated debate, the bill hit the governor's desk in mid April. With Deal's signature last week, Georgia is now squarely in the forefront of the growing number of states taking immigration issues into their own hands.
“This legislation I believe is a responsible step forward in the absence of federal action,” Deal told reporters at the packed signing Friday.
In fact, H.B. 87 is only the newest wrinkle in the state's hard-line approach, which dates back to at least 2006, when Georgia passed a law requiring proof of citizenship to receive government benefits and encouraging local law enforcement to participate in federal immigration enforcement programs. Last year Georgia's top state universities adopted a policy to bar undocumented immigrants from enrolling.
Georgia is not alone. Around the country politicians and voters assert that the federal government's failure to control the flow of the undocumented has left states to deal with the alleged consequences of illegal immigration such as depressed wages, rising crime and drug trafficking.
As of March 31, legislators introduced 52 immigration-related bills in 30 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bi-partisan organization that tracks legislation. Fourteen bills have failed. Thirty-two are pending.
Although some bills offer immigrants more rights, many mirror Arizona's S.B. 1070. Utah earlier this year passed a law that allows law enforcement more leeway to inquire about status while at the same time creating a state guest worker program. Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee have hard-line immigration bills pending.
Washington has fought back.
“It is a mistake for states to try to do this piecemeal,” President Barack Obama said of H.B. 87 during an interview with Atlanta’s WSB-TV in April. “We can’t have 50 different immigration laws around the country. Arizona tried this and a federal court already struck them down.”
The Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction against S.B. 1070 last month, which Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she would appeal to the Supreme Court. The Utah law may follow a similar course.
Last week, immigrant and civil rights groups successfully sued to block its implementation. Groups in Georgia have said they will bring a similar challenge if Deal signs H.B. 87.
Washington too has promised to continue to oppose such legislation. The president said he wants a comprehensive national solution, but his efforts to pass a reform bill through Congress have been consistently stymied.
To jumpstart the issue, Obama traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border May 10 to trumpet his administration's efforts to stem illegal immigration and secure the border. He argued comprehensive reform would not only strengthen national security, but also provide economic benefits for the middle class and businesses.
“One way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else,” he said.
The Debate Deepens
In principle, both sides agree reform is needed. But while some want to use law enforcement to help crack down on those who feed the underground economy, others believe punitive measures are the wrong approach.
In Georgia, the tourism industry has joined agribusiness, activists, immigrants and some legislators to oppose H.B. 87 who worry that the bill presents more problems than it solves.
“It's not going to grow any jobs,” said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. “It's going to kill jobs.”
Tolar said he recognizes that illegal immigration is an issue, but argued H.B. 87 would also scare away legal workers crucial to Georgia's $68.8 billion agriculture industry.
“We cannot afford to sit idly and let some politically expedient solution tarnish” the industry, Tolar said.
In a nod to agribusiness, the final version of H.B. 87 required a task force study of the role of immigrant labor in the industry. Authors of the legislation said they made dozens of revisions to appease opponents and to help the law stand up to court challenge.
Georgia State Rep. Matt Ramsey, who sponsored H.B. 87, brushed off the idea that threatened litigation or opposition should stop Georgia from passing the law.
“Any suggestion that states should continue to wait for the federal government to do something, with all due respect, is laughable,” Ramsey told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “We have been hearing that for decades.”
Radical changes, real and perceived, have forced many to grapple with a new Georgia. About a quarter of the 1.7 million people who moved to the state within the last decade were foreign-born. Data from the Pew Hispanic Center show the undocumented population grew as well, nearly doubling to 425,000 in the last decade. The national undocumented population peaked in 2007 at 12 million, then fell during the recession, settling at about 11.2 million last year.
Georgia legislators said H.B. 87 comes in response to the anxieties of their constituents about illegal immigration.
“They perceive it as taking jobs that maybe they're entitled to,” said Sen. Jack Murphy, who had sponsored S.B. 40, sister bill to H.B. 87. “They see it taxing our education system, our Medicaid system, all these things that we're wanting to look out after.”
Efforts to pin down the cost of illegal immigration vary widely. Murphy cited $1.6 billion, a figure from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Florida-based anti-immigration group. That includes an estimated $758 million spent to education the U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants.
The non-partisan group Georgia Budget and Policy Institute this year released a report showing undocumented immigrants contribute about $407 million in taxes to state and local coffers.
Yet to Murphy, the undocumented population represents a net loss for native-born Georgians.
“The only way that we can stop illegal immigrants from coming into Georgia is to cut off the reason why they want to come here,” Murphy said. “That would be the illegal jobs.”
Impact on Law Enforcement
The cost of enforcing H.B. 87 is also up for debate. Opponents argue Georgia cannot afford the additional burden on the criminal justice system. Supporters believe enforcement would, in the long run, provide a net savings.
H.B. 87 offers incentives for counties to enroll in 287(g), a federal program that deputizes local law enforcement to enforce immigration law. Those that participate will receive a higher jail reimbursement rate for holding immigrants charged with a felony. Several Georgia counties have 287(g) applications pending, which Washington has been slow to grant.
This may be in part because the federal government has struggled to control the $68 million program. A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office found widespread problems with the 287(g), including the fact that many participants targeted low-level offenders, rather than focusing on identifying individuals who posed a high risk to public safety.
Traffic violations have accounted for a large percentage of those detained in Georgia counties enrolled in 287(g), according to a 2010 report from the Migration Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank. The report found about 60 percent of those detained in Cobb County came to the jail after a traffic stop.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff has said participating in the program cut crime significantly in his county. Numbers posed on the Gwinnett County Sheriff's website show about 44 percent of those detained were arrested on traffic violations.
Some believe enforcement should work this way.
“Nobody disputes that we ought to give priority to those who pose a risk to public safety,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “It does not mean that you should not enforce immigration laws against other people.”
Yet immigration and civil rights advocates said H.B. 87 could worsen what they believe is the chilling effect of programs like 287(g)
'Atmosphere of Terror'
“It will lead to the creation of an atmosphere of terror for communities of color around the state,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. “We've seen that happen in Cobb and Gwinnett (counties) already. The community is not trustful of the police.”
Like the Arizona law, H.B. 87 contains language that explicitly prohibits racial profiling. It also bars law enforcement from inquiring as to the immigration status of crime victims or witnesses. But whether or not allegations of racial profiling hold water, many in the immigrant community have come to fear interaction with law enforcement.
“If you drive on the freeway, there are a lot of police,” said Ariel Ramirez. “They'll take you right to immigration.”
At the protest in March, Ramirez stood with her friend Lucy Roblero on a crowded sidewalk. The women, dressed in white, had wide faces that told of indigenous roots. Above their heads they held color-copied signs that read “No More Tearing Families Apart.”
The women are undocumented. Both said they have children who are citizens. In Georgia, family members increasingly hold different passports. Passage of H.B. 87, the women worry, could turn a drive down the highway into a family divided.
As Ramirez spoke of the challenges of living undocumented, her friend Lucy Roblero nodded.
“We're afraid, and we're afraid for our children,” Roblero said. “They can't stay here alone.”
Lisa Riordan Seville writes regularly for The Crime Report, among other publications. Hannah Rappleye contributed reporting to this story.