Large police agencies aren’t enforcing state immigration law

Three years ago this month Georgia drew national attention when it followed Arizona’s lead and enacted sweeping legislation to drive out immigrants living illegally in the state.

The part of the law that has drawn the most attention gives state and local police the option to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and to detain them and take them to jail if they are determined to be in the country illegally. Supporters predicted that provision would protect Georgia’s taxpayer-funded resources. Opponents unsuccessfully sued to scrap it, saying it is unconstitutional.

But many of Georgia’s largest police departments ultimately decided not to enforce that provision, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. Among them: the cities of Atlanta and Sandy Springs, and Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

They offered many reasons. Like the Roswell Police Department, some agencies are leaving it up to jails in their communities to identify people who are in the country illegally. Jails nationwide now participate in a fingerprint-sharing program overseen by federal immigration authorities.

Other law enforcement agencies are citing different priorities. For example, a spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Atlanta wants to help “foster a welcoming environment for every individual in the city, regardless of race, ethnicity or place of origin.”

“Anyone breaking the law in the city of Atlanta will be dealt with accordingly, regardless of immigration status,” said Carlos Campos, the mayor’s spokesman, who listed numerous other ways the city is fighting crime. “We typically do not investigate immigration status under the authority granted under Georgia law because it is not a priority for the Reed administration in our efforts to reduce crime.”

Atlanta’s decision drew a sharp response from Phil Kent, a member of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, which was established by the same state law to investigate state and local officials who fail to enforce the state’s immigration-related laws.

“It is obviously corrosive to our rule of law when law enforcement agencies ignore laws,” said Kent, the spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control. “Some enforcement sends a message that taxpayers are being protected.”

There may be other unstated reasons why police agencies have decided against enforcing the law, said Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. Among them are concerns about navigating a legal minefield and alienating immigrant crime victims and witnesses.

The author of the law — House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City — said state lawmakers didn’t want to burden police with unfunded state mandates and did not expect the law would be enforced uniformly across the state.

“As a state,” he said, “I think it would have been bad policy for us to mandate that law enforcement enforce this particular provision in the law.”

The law’s passage alone, he said, created a deterrent effect. Ramsey and other House Republicans said they were seeking to uphold the rule of law when they sponsored the immigration legislation in 2011. That year, there were an estimated 440,000 immigrants living illegally in Georgia, according to the federal Homeland Security Department. In January 2012, that number was down by 40,000. But it’s impossible to say precisely how the state’s immigration law has affected Georgia’s numbers. Demographers caution that the changes in Georgia’s figures are not statistically significant and such state-by-state estimates are subject to wide margins of error.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed the measure into law in May 2011, saying the state had to act “in the absence of federal action.” Immigration overhaul legislation remains stalled in Congress. A coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups sued to block parts of Georgia’s law in federal court, saying they interfere with federal immigration enforcement and could violate people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. They also said the measures could lead to racial profiling, even though the law explicitly prohibits that.

The federal courts blocked one section that would severely punish people who — while committing another crime — are caught knowingly transporting or harboring immigrants without papers. But the courts upheld the provision that gives police the authority to check the immigration status of certain suspects. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court sustained a similar law in Arizona, though it said detaining people “solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns.”

Because of the federal court battles, Georgia police weren’t allowed to begin enforcing the state’s measure until December 2012. It’s impossible to determine precisely how often the law is being used and how effective it has been because police aren’t keeping track. For example, the Georgia State Patrol is letting its officers decide when to enforce it and is not keeping statistics on its use.

“We are not set up to track those kinds of stats. Don’t plan to,” said Lt. Kermit Stokes, a former head of the State Patrol’s criminal interdiction unit. “The main thing with us is the trooper’s discretion.”

Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies are enforcing the law by contacting federal immigration authorities when they encounter suspects without legal status. But they are leaving detention responsibilities up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Lt. Jay Baker, a spokesman for the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office, said in an email.

“Our detention center is already overcrowded and we do not have the resources to detain/transport large numbers of inmates,” Baker said.

After the governor signed Georgia’s immigration measure into law in 2011, some migrant Hispanic farmworkers fled or looked for jobs in other states. Later that year, the state’s agricultural industry identified a shortage of 5,244 farm laborers and $74.9 million in losses on seven crops in Georgia. The report did not cite the reasons for the worker shortages. But some farmers said Georgia’s immigration law scared away the workers they depend on, putting their crops at risk. Ramsey said a bigger factor was “the good Lord’s weather patterns.”

Junior Kight is the sheriff in Toombs County in rural South Georgia, where farmers depend on migrant Hispanic laborers to help harvest Vidalia onions and pine straw. Kight said he heard some of those laborers left after Georgia’s immigration law passed. Before the law went on the books, Kight added, Toombs sheriff’s deputies already had the authority to arrest motorists caught driving without a license. They are then booked into his county’s jail, which participates in the fingerprint-sharing program overseen by federal immigration authorities.

“Really, the law didn’t make a difference — a lot of change — with us,” he said.

Meanwhile, the groups that sued to block the law are monitoring its enforcement in Georgia. They said they are prepared to go to court again if they hear allegations of constitutional rights violations.

“If there are Fourth Amendment violations or other illegal actions being taken under the banner of (the law),” said Omar Jadwat, a supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, “we stand ready to sue.”

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