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Georgia is about to embark on a bold experiment in privatization. Starting next year, officials in the state—mayors, county commissioners, and even business license clerks—could face $5,000 fines from a panel of citizen volunteers empowered by the state to investigate complaints about lax enforcement of immigration laws. The body will also have the authority to strip funding from local governments.
The first-of-its-kind Immigration Enforcement Review Board is part of Georgia’s new immigration statute, one of the toughest in the country. The law, which took effect on July 1, has already provoked a federal lawsuit and a court injunction—and led to a shortage of fruit and vegetable pickers during the harvest season. There were 425,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia in 2009, making up 4.3 percent of the state’s population, according to the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.
Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, says the board’s seven unpaid members will be named in the next few months and he expects the panel to begin its work in January. The law doesn’t offer any guidelines on who may be eligible to sit on the board.
D.A. King, a Georgia activist who helped shape the new law, is pleased with the results. “It is a significant step in that we have expanded Georgia law to intentionally make life very, very difficult and insecure for people who hire illegal immigrants, the illegals themselves, and the anti-enforcement politicians.”
Charles Kuck, a lawyer who is part of a team challenging the law, says the review panel will increase paperwork and waste money without any effect on illegal immigration. “It’s like a mini-McCarthy panel,” he says, referring to the Wisconsin Senator’s investigations of supposed Communists in the 1950s.
More than 10,000 protesters marched on the state capital on the day the law took effect. Just days before that, a federal court in Atlanta blocked some key provisions of the statute. One would allow police in the state to check the immigration status of people detained for even minor infractions such as disorderly conduct or running a red light. The court acted in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and several others groups.
The ACLU case did not challenge the legality of the Immigration Review Board. A Georgia law from 2006 already requires state officials to use national immigration databases to determine the legal status of non-citizens applying for state and municipal jobs, business licenses, or other types of benefits. The panel will be responsible for complaints submitted by registered voters in the state and determining whether public officials are complying with that law.
Many of them probably aren’t. In the past year just five jurisdictions in the state have reported receiving a business license application from someone whose legal status was unverifiable. Nan Riegle, the part-time city clerk and sole government official of Parrott, Ga., a 156-person hamlet three hours south of Atlanta, reported “an Indian guy” who wanted to renew a license for a convenience store. Riegle tried to look him up in the national database but “couldn’t get the system to work,” she recalls. “It is horrible. These little towns, we have so many mandates coming out of Atlanta, our workload has doubled.”
Riegle calls the enforcement board a “crappy” idea but says she’ll do her best to comply, if only to avoid the consequences. “I can’t afford to get my little town fined.”
The bottom line: Georgia has raised the immigration debate to a new level by empowering citizens to police enforcement of the state’s tough new law.