The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The battle over Georgia’s stringent new immigration enforcement law shifted to the courts Thursday when several civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit to stop the measure from ever taking effect.
Phil Skinner, firstname.lastname@example.org Mohammad Addollahi speaks against Georgia’s new immigrant law as the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of civil rights groups announce a lawsuit challenging the law at a press conference in front of the the state Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, June 2nd.
Phil Skinner, email@example.com Sandy Carlberg (left, obscured) and Sandra Riedesel, both from Kennesaw, hold signs protesting Georgia’s new immigration law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, the Southern Poverty Law Center and several immigrant rights organizations and individuals are challenging the law in Atlanta’s federal district court. They are arguing the measure is pre-empted by federal law and unconstitutional, and they are asking a federal judge for an injunction, hoping to block the measure before it is set to become law July 1.
The lawsuit was expected. The ACLU warned state lawmakers in February — before they even held their first committee hearing on the law — that it would fight the measure in court. Together with the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU has filed lawsuits to block similar laws in Arizona and Utah. Georgia lawmakers said they knew the lawsuit was coming and said they crafted the immigration law so it would stand up in court.
“Georgia’s law is fundamentally un-American: We are not a ‘show me your papers’ country, nor one that believes in making certain people ‘untouchables’ that others should be afraid to assist, house or transport,” said Omar Jadwat, staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The courts have blocked Arizona’s and Utah’s laws from going into effect. Georgia should be prepared for the same outcome.”
Supporters of the new law say it will help curb illegal immigration in Georgia. They say illegal immigrants are burdening the state’s taxpayer-funded public schools, hospitals and jails.
The ACLU and other plaintiffs are targeting several parts of Georgia’s new law, including one that would authorize police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and take illegal immigrants to jail. The plaintiffs argue that provision intrudes on the federal government’s power to regulate immigration.
After signing the measure, called House Bill 87, into law last month, Gov. Nathan Deal expressed confidence in it, saying state legislators benefited from observing the legal battle play out over a similar law in Arizona last year. A spokeswoman for the Republican governor said Thursday that Deal expects the court to rule in Georgia’s favor.
“These organizations falsely claim HB 87 is a copycat of Arizona’s legislation. It is not,” said Stephanie Mayfield, a spokeswoman for Deal. “The Georgia General Assembly carefully vetted a piece of legislation that ensured a constitutional final product.”
The author of the bill — Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City — has said he worked on more than 16 drafts of the legislation, partly to protect it against court challenges. Ramsey has predicted the law will withstand legal challenges.
“This is again the ACLU demonstrating that they are out of the mainstream and out of touch with the concerns of average hardworking Georgians,” Ramsey said. “We believe that the provisions of the bill will be vindicated when put to scrutiny in the court system.”
Ramsey has repeatedly pointed out that Georgia’s law differs from Arizona’s in several ways. For example, Georgia’s law makes it optional for police to investigate the immigration status of suspects they believe have committed state or federal crimes and who cannot produce identification, such as a driver’s license, or provide other information that could help police identify them. Arizona’s law requires police to check the immigration status of suspects during “any lawful contact” when practicable and when they have “reasonable suspicion” that the suspects are illegally in the country.
Republican Attorney General Sam Olens on Thursday pledged to defend Georgia’s law in court.
“I believe the plaintiffs’ claims are meritless and baseless,” he said. “We will vigorously defend this lawsuit with the full resources of the Attorney General’s office. HB 87 was validly enacted by the General Assembly.”
A federal judge put Arizona’s law on hold last year after the Obama administration argued in court that it interferes with the federal government’s authority to set and enforce immigration policy. Last month, a different federal judge halted a similar law in Utah, citing how it is similar to the Arizona legislation.
Critics of Georgia’s law had warned the state will be forced to spend taxpayer money defending it in court. As of November, Arizona has paid $1.5 million to a private law firm to defend its immigration law, though that money came from private donations contributed to the state’s legal defense fund.
Opponents of Georgia’s law hope the federal Justice Department will join the court fight against it. A Justice Department spokesman said this week that she had no comment.
The lawsuit is the latest fallout from the governor’s decision to sign the measure. Last week, Deal asked state officials to investigate the extent to which the new law is affecting farm labor shortages in South Georgia. Some farmers complain the new measure is scaring away the migrant workers they depend on to harvest their fruits and vegetables, potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars in crops in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, immigrant rights organizations are encouraging businesses and conventioneers to boycott Georgia because of the law. Last week, the American Anthropological Association — which claims to have an average annual membership of more than 10,000 — condemned the measure and vowed not to hold any conferences in Georgia until the law is either repealed or struck down in court.
The lawsuit says Georgia’s law interferes with federal authority over immigration matters, authorizes unreasonable seizures and arrests, restricts peoples’ constitutional rights to travel freely in the United States and discriminates against people who hold certain kinds of identity documents. The plaintiffs plan to ask a federal judge next week to halt the law pending the outcome of their legal case.
Among the plaintiffs listed on the 82-page lawsuit are the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Service Employees International Union, the Task Force for the Homeless, DreamActivist.org, the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center.
Paul Bridges is also a plaintiff. A Republican, he is the mayor of Uvalda, a small South Georgia town near where many Hispanic migrant workers harvest Vidalia onions. Bridges worries he could run afoul of a provision of the law that punishes people who — while committing another crime — knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourage them to come to Georgia. He said he sometimes drives people to the hospital or dentist.
“It is going to impact me because I drive people around all the time,” he said during a news conference outside the state Capitol Thursday afternoon. “I don’t ask them for papers when I drive them… This law will make me a criminal come July 1 if the court doesn’t see fit to stop it.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are targeting several parts of Georgia’s new anti-illegal immigration law, including ones that would:
• Empower local and state police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and arrest illegal immigrants and take them to state and federal jails. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue this part of the law invites racial profiling. They also say it could prolong ordinary police stops and authorize police to detain people for lengthy periods of time in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
• Punish people who — while committing another crime — knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourage them to come to Georgia. The lawsuit says this part of the state law intrudes on the federal government’s power to regulate immigration.
• Require people applying for public benefits in Georgia — such as food stamps, housing assistance and business licenses — to provide at least one “secure and verifiable” document, which could be a state or federally issued form of identification. Consular matriculation cards will not be accepted. The plaintiffs say this part of the lawsuit is also preempted by federal law, which governs the rules for verifying eligibility for federally-funded food stamps and certain subsidized housing.