CALHOUN — In this northwest Georgia town where many work in the local carpet factories, people crammed into a community center to learn about Georgia’s new law cracking down on illegal immigration — some of them scared to the point they’re ready to leave the state.
The meeting was similar to others being held around the state to inform the immigrant community — legal and illegal alike — about the law and their rights. With anxiety running high and some illegal immigrants talking about packing up and leaving the state, organizers of the meetings are trying not only to educate but also to quell fears.
“There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety,” Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Atlanta-based Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials told the roughly 100 people gathered Thursday evening in Calhoun. “We’re here now to explain things so you can make informed decisions based on reality and not based on fear or emotion.”
The new law authorizes law enforcement to check the immigration status of a suspect who cannot provide identification and to detain and hand over to federal authorities anyone found to be in the country illegally. It also penalizes people who, during the commission of another crime, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job.
Most parts of the law are set to take effect July 1. A requirement for many employers to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires is set to be phased in starting in January, with all employers with more than 10 employees to be using the database by July 2013.
Gonzalez was joined by local Latino community leaders, representatives from the Mexican consulate in Atlanta and immigration lawyers. They spoke for about two hours and answered questions on the new law and immigration law in general. Other meetings in other parts of the state have drawn hundreds, Gonzalez said.
The most common questions at the information sessions focus on the new immigration status requirements for employment and on the penalties for people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants in some situations, Gonzalez said.
Soledad Leon, 40, cleans houses and does other odd jobs when she can find them. She’s worried about her 17-year-old son, who just graduated from high school with honors, she said. He was only a year old when she brought him here from Mexico. Her other three children were born here and are U.S. citizens. She came to the meeting in Calhoun to learn about the new law but was still scared afterward.
“I think I’m going to move to another state,” said Soledad Leon. “It’s too hard when we’re afraid to leave the house to go to the store or to work.”
That’s exactly what Latino community leaders, immigrant outreach groups and immigration lawyers are trying to prevent.
“You don’t do anything you wouldn’t do six months ago — you don’t pack up and move, you don’t get married, nothing — that’s what we’re telling people,” said Charles Kuck, a prominent Atlanta immigration lawyer, whose clients have been calling and coming to see him with concerns over the new law.
There is also some hope among people who are advising the immigrant community of how the law might affect them that the law may be stalled by legal challenges. Civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to block state authorities from enforcing it. A federal judge is set to hear arguments June 20 on an injunction that would block the law from taking effect until that lawsuit has been resolved.
In Arizona and Utah where laws with some similar provisions have been enacted, federal judges have blocked all or parts of the laws from taking effect and opponents of the law in Georgia are hopeful that will happen here.
The governor of neighboring Alabama this week enacted a law that includes some similar provisions and that both critics and supporters have called the strictest in the country. Various groups have already vowed to sue to block that law.
Representatives of foreign governments have been treading carefully, wanting to reassure their citizens but also making sure they’re prepared for the possible consequences of the law.
The Mexican consulate in Atlanta has put out a leaflet that outlines the provisions of the law, reminds people of the accepted forms of identification in Georgia, advises them on precautions to take and informs them of their civil rights.
Beatriz Illescas Putzeys, general consul for Guatemala in Atlanta, said many Guatemalan citizens are afraid. She has been talking to immigration lawyers and advising people to consider the facts — that the law may be blocked and if it’s not, that it will take time to implement — before leaving the state.