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The Arizona Syndrome
Will efforts to curb illegal immigration in Georgia cause more problems than they solve?
In the border states of the Western U.S., the "Caution: Immigrants Crossing" signs are iconic

Last spring, the state of Arizona took center stage in the national debate on immigration reform, a drama that culminated with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signing SB 1070 into law last April.

It prompted heated debate; viewed by some as a necessary step toward reducing illegal immigration and by others as a legislative endorsement of racial profiling.

This year it could be Georgia’s turn in the spotlight.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Matt Ramsey introduced HB 87, the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011,” which is working its way through committee level discussions before being sent for a vote.

Currently, the bill contains very similar language to the most volatile aspects of Arizona’s law.

Although changes are likely to be made during the process, there are concerns being raised by an array of organizations in the state about the impacts the legislation could have.

Effect on the economy

The issue of immigration is often framed by economic arguments: the theft of jobs, decreasing wages, drained public coffers. Those are the costs of illegal immigration, according to supporters of reform.

“Though long ignored by Washington, Georgia literally cannot afford to ignore the economic burden created by our unsecure borders,” said Ramsey in the press release announcing the new legislation. We contacted Ramsey for additional comment, but he could not be reached.

Aspects of HB 87 could have a profound affect on Georgia businesses.

If the bill were to pass today, any business in the state with more than five employees would have to show proof that they were using the federal e–Verify system to ensure all employees are legally in the country. Failure to adopt the system would render them unable to renew their business license the following year.

“In today’s economy, we can’t afford to be burdensome to small business,” counters Trip Tollison, vice President of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce.

Although the Chamber has yet to formally support or oppose the legislation — a decision that is as clear a barometer for the sentiments of the business community as can be found — there are concerns about the requirements it would place on businesses.

“We’re concerned this legislation ties the economic growth of Georgia’s farms and businesses, including our ability to hire employees, to a system that the state of Georgia has no control is a over,” says Charles Hall, Executive Director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “The feds can change e–verify at anytime.”

But the effects on business, particularly locally, could run far deeper than protocol for employee screenings: The negative publicity stemming from potential national media attention could have a chilling effect on tourism as well.

In the wake of Arizona’s contentious battle over immigration, the impact on tourism, and particularly conventions, was almost immediate. In July 2010, City of Phoenix staff estimated a loss of $90 million in visitors and conventions following the media frenzy.

Although that figure has been revised as the dust has settled, the Hotel and Lodging Association still figures on a loss near $15 million in Arizona.

Law enforcement’s take

“We have a few concerns,” says Lamar Norton, The Georgia Municipal Association’s Director of Governmental Affairs in a statement issued after the HB 87 was announced. Those concerns include “unnecessary mandates,” and a “potential litigation nightmare.”

The legislation would allow any state resident over the age of 21 to sue any agency, organization or individual for perceived failure to comply with the law’s mandates.

Cases would be filed in Superior Court and penalties awarded would be turned over to law enforcement within the court’s jurisdiction to fund additional training.

The law enforcement community has some reservations about the legislation in its current form as well.

In 2008, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP) released a white paper on their position on immigration issues after holding a forum with community and business leaders.

Their decision was that “each individual community has to decide how they want to enforce immigration statutes,” explains Frank V. Rotondo, Executive Director of the GACP.

Although Rotondo acknowledged the stance might sound “wishy washy,” there is a rationale behind it. Because undocumented populations vary widely across the state, local law enforcement requires some ability to deal with situations on a case-by-case basis.

The concern is that if law enforcement is viewed as an adversary rather than an ally, crimes will go unreported or witnesses will refuse to come forward with information.

HB 87 contains some language that exempts witnesses of crimes from investigation of immigration status, but that is unlikely to correct the issue.

“It’s a nice statement to make,” says Rotondo, “but I don’t know how effective it is in the real world.”
Rotondo said he has submitted comments and suggestions, at Ramsey’s request, to correct some of the potential issues for law enforcement agencies.

The Hispanic community

“It’s structured in a way where police officers will be able to find probable cause based on their perceptions and cognitive stereotypes,” says Melody Rodriguez, who heads the Hispanic Outreach and Leadership program at Armstrong Atlantic State University. “This is a great opportunity for racial profiling.”

For Rodriguez and the students she works with, the legislation could mean false imprisonment if they don’t happen to have identification on hand.

Officers “shall have the power to arrest, with probable cause, any person suspected of being an illegal alien,” and can take “a suspected illegal alien to a federal facility in this state or to any other temporary point of detention,” states HB 87.
If officers were to mistakenly arrest and detain a legal citizen, there would be no legal recourse because the law provides officers with “immunity from damages or liability.”

According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 32 percent of Hispanics in the country said they or someone they know has been discriminated against because of their ethnicity.

And that was in 2009, before Arizona’s SB 1070.

Ramsey’s announcement doesn’t shy away from blaming undocumented workers for the state’s most pressing issues:
“We continue to see huge reductions to every segment of our state budget, meaning state services are stretched thinner than ever before. School classrooms are more crowded, our healthcare system is at its limits, transportation infrastructure is overburdened and our law enforcement community is working feverishly to do more work with fewer resources. It would be patently irresponsible not to address the issues posed by Georgia’s estimated 400,000– plus illegal aliens.”

Rodriguez would like to see state legislators taking proactive steps to improve the business climate in the state rather than imposing draconian measures as a part of a blame game for the state’s economic woes.

“These folks should be building jobs in Georgia and taking care of our economy by attracting businesses and foreign investors to Georgia to do some great things,” Rodriguez says.

“This law does the complete opposite. It makes us look ridiculous and unprepared in a globalized economy.”

Necessity & effectiveness

The issue of immigration has been simmering in Georgia for several years, and this isn’t the first piece of reform legislation pondered by the General Assembly.

In 2007, former Governor Sonny Perdue signed SB 529 into law, known as the “Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act.”

That law required all public employers to participate in the federal work authorization program (e–Verify), and created a new code section (42–4–14) that required jails to determine the nationality of anyone jailed for a felony, DUI or driving without a license.

Additionally, there’s a federal statute, known as 287(g) that gives state and local officers the authority, under an agreement with the federal government, to enforce federal immigration law.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office has had a 287(g) agreement in place since 2007, and the Gwinnett County Sheriff has had it in place since 2009.

Because existing laws would seem to provide sufficient authority to enforce immigration laws without potentially harassing law-abiding citizens, the extra measures in HB 87 seem unnecessary and hypocritical to Rodriguez.

“They have the capacity in this state to call immigration and raid every single poultry plant and every single farm in Georgia,” she says.

“Why don’t they do that? Because there are folks that pay for their campaigns that own farms that employ undocumented labor.”

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