CANTON – Cherokee County’s Hispanic activists and its law enforcement agencies are studying Georgia’s new immigration law with extra caution.
Fidel Gomez, executive director of the Canton-based Uniting Communities in Georgia, Inc. said the new law will instill fear among some in the county’s Hispanic community.
Georgia’s new law, which takes effect July 1, is similar to Arizona’s law, which is tied up in the legal system because of challenges.
It allows state and local police officers to request the immigration documents from suspected criminals.
It also requires many private businesses to use the E-Verify federal program to confirm employees’ legal residency.
It also blocks certain businesses from obtaining official licenses and other documents needed to operate in the state if it doesn’t use the program.
Gomez said some in the community may become more reluctant to reach out to law enforcement if they are in trouble.
“They will hesitate to call them,” he said.
Gomez, whose organization provides classes in English, computer skills and seminars about finances, said it’s the federal government’s job to regulate immigration and the state should have focused its efforts on putting pressure on its senators and representatives to pass comprehension immigration reform.
Gomez said Georgia’s legislators should have thought about the possible “damage” the bill would bring to its tourism industry, adding he knows people who have canceled vacations to Arizona.
The law is getting mixed response from local law enforcement officials.
Holly Springs Police Chief Ken Ball said it’s a “shame” that the federal government has sat on its hands when it comes to enforcing illegal immigration into the United States.
“I do believe Georgia has done the right thing in giving the power to local jurisdictions to enforce this law at the state level,” he said.
However, Ball did note he is worried about the burden placed on local jails that hold criminals suspected of being in the country illegally, waiting on the federal government to take action or begin the deportation process.
He also said he’s concerned about the potential litigation the law will most likely spur-just like what state officials in Arizona are witnessing.
“Everyone is waiting to see what the federal courts decide on these challenges,” he said.
Sheriff Roger Garrison said the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office is in the process of weeding though the law’s hundreds of pages to make sure they understand the legislation from a law enforcement’s perspective.
“I understand and support the intent of the legislature in this effort,” he added.
Garrison did reiterate that state and local officers are not allowed to check the immigration status without a criminal violation.
He added the law also exempts people who are reporting crimes, victims of a crime or witnesses to crimes from having their legal statuses checked.
“Most importantly, we can’t violate anybody’s constitutional rights,” he added.
The sheriff noted anyone who comes through the county’s Adult Detention Center has their citizenship status checked, as it already participates in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities initiative, which uses fingerprints to identify aliens after they are arrested and detained.
Garrison said he hoped to win approval this year from ICE to participate in the 287(g) program, which trains and authorizes local law enforcement officers to identify, process and detain immigration offenders. Agencies approved for the program also receive funding to jail detainees.
The approval, the sheriff added, “would mesh well to ensure we’re utilizing every tool available to us (and) to ensure that the law is complied with and we’re doing our part to protect the citizens.”
Unfortunately, Garrison added, the law may widen the gap between the department and the county’s Hispanic population, but the sheriff did say they will continue to reach out to the community.
Woodstock Police Chief David Bores said he’s not “holding his breath” over the legislation going into effect as there are numerous legal challenges facing the bill.
Bores echoed his Holly Springs counterpart and said it was a “shame” the federal government “has not done its job to properly enforce our boarders.”
“As a consequence, the states have been forced to take unilateral action to deal with the number of illegal immigrants within their respective jurisdictions,” he said. “Ignoring the problem is no longer an option.”
Bores did note it was too early to tell whether the department will see their relationship with the Hispanic community cool off. He did say he can ensure the public the department will not profile or take anyone into custody without “proper legal justification.”
Canton Police Chief Jeff Lance said the law would place a huge burden on local agencies that do not have the resources to adequately enforce the law.
Lance added his agency has training in identifying false documents, but that only proves useful when they encounter individuals who carry those documents.
“In most cases, the individuals we come in contact with whose immigration status is questionable, do not carry any identification with them,” he added.
Lance reiterated the agency will continue to work with its Hispanic community to ensure they provide just as much protection and service to them as they do with the city at large.
“When working on solving crimes, we have shown to the local Latino community that our concerns are not centered on their immigration status, but rather our interest is focused on assisting the victim and apprehending the offender,” he said.
According to the Rev. Dr. Aquiles Martinez, coordinator of the Mi Familia Center in Canton and, the conciliatory messages from law enforcement agencies haven’t soothed some of Cherokee’s Hispanic families.
Martinez said families have confessed to him they are thinking about moving to another state “just to protect their families.”
“For the most part, they are concerned and (have) fear of how it will impact their lives,” he said.
The center, which has been open for a little more than a year, offers free resources including English as a Second Language, GED and computer literacy classes, after-school assistance for children struggling with academics, immigration clinics, tax returns assistance, religious services and health fairs.
Martinez said it is “very na ve” for legislators to believe the illegal immigration problem can be solved solely from a law enforcement perspective.
“This is an issue that has to be looked at on a holistic level,” he said.