Georgia immigration crackdown takes hold
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Charles Bullock - Download MP3
- By Matt Wilson and Erin Fuchs
Just a few days after the federal bill meant to reform immigration law failed on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Georgia's sweeping law to crack down on illegal immigrants and employers who hire them became official.
"There's not really a whole lot of debate in Georgia," said Dr. Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, on how Georgia put a law on the books while the federal measure floundered.
Dr. Bullock noted the strong conservative slant of the Georgia General Assembly and a stance "pretty much opposed to in-migration" as reasons for the consensus. Meanwhile, a stronger Democratic Party nationally and a wider range of opinions led to a more divided Congress, he said.
The Georgia law, which took effect Sunday, sets a timetable to require employers and contractors to verify the immigration status of all new hires or risk losing state tax breaks.
Roy Bowen, president of the Georgia Textile Manufacturers Association, said the new law would not likely change industry hiring practices.
"We believe that our member companies act in good faith in their hiring practices," Mr. Bowen said. "We believe we are in compliance with state and federal law."
Mr. Bowen did say companies would "double-check" documents potential employees provide.
Still, said state Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, false documents are common.
"I'm not so sure (the verification process) works so well, as we're doing it now," Rep Meadows said.
Charlie Bethel, human resources manager at Dalton, Ga., carpet manufacturer J&J Industries, said his company uses the most stringent federal system available to verify documentation, the Employment Eligibility Verification Program/Basic Pilot.
The Georgia Department of Labor issued new rules last month requiring all contractors and subcontractors who plan to do work for the state to enroll in that program.
The new law likely will have strong effects in the Dalton area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Whitfield County's population is 28.2 percent Hispanic, compared to 7.1 percent of Georgia as a whole.
Dr. Douglas Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said those figures should probably be higher, as Hispanics are usually undercounted in the federal census.
"Nobody has that information," Dr. Bachtel said about a precise count.
The new law also requires law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone arrested for a felony or a DUI.
Detainees determined to be in the country illegally are to be reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Georgia Department of Public Safety spokesman Gordy Wright stressed that the law would not make deportation the main duty of state troopers.
"We're not going to be a part of immigration raids or anything like that," Mr. Wright said.
Whitfield County, Ga., Sheriff Scott Chitwood said that the law is simply formalizing a current practice.
"If we have reason to believe that a person is illegal, then we have notified ICE in the past," Sheriff Chitwood said. "It (the law) is mandating that to be protocol."
Opponents, including Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, have argued that the law's provisions create an environment that is unfriendly to Hispanics. Mr. Gonzalez called it the "Jose Crow laws of Georgia."
But Rep. Meadows said he believes the new law is reasonable and might have been far stricter if Georgia lawmakers had known no federal immigration bill would pass.
"There's not a thing in this bill that I believe is unfair," said Rep. Meadows, a former Calhoun mayor.
Then again, rumors circulating in immigrant communities have led many to believe that the law is stricter than it actually is, according to Carlos Calderin, a Dalton-based immigration attorney.
"There's a lot of misinformation on this law," Mr. Calderin said about talk in the Hispanic community.
He said some immigrants believe, falsely, "that the police will go around a neighborhood and look for anybody who looks suspicious, anybody who looks like they might be illegal and simply deport them."
Mr. Calderin said he worries that, because of concerns about the law, immigrants will not call the police when they witness a crime, for fear of being deported.
America Gruner, president of Dalton's Coalition of Latino Leaders, said that many in the Hispanic community feared the law even before it went into effect Sunday. Some immigrants she knows in Dalton have not been leaving their houses except to go to work, she said.
"We knew it was coming, but we were hoping that ... this legislation would be revoked," Ms. Gruner said. "But it didn't happen."