By Margaret Newkirk – Jul 19, 2011 12:01 AM ET
Georgia mayors, county commissioners and even business-license clerks may face $5,000 fines from a panel of state-sanctioned volunteers empowered to investigate complaints about compliance with a new immigration law.
The board will be able to subpoena witnesses and strip funding from public bodies it finds have violated the law and levy fines against governments and individuals.
The first-of-its-kind Immigration Enforcement Review Board is part of a law that took effect July 1, making Georgia one of six states that have taken immigration enforcement duties into their own hands. To date, the law has provoked a federal lawsuit, a court injunction and a shortage of fruit and vegetable pickers in Georgia’s harvest season. The enforcement board’s job is to keep government officials in line.
“This is a radical privatization of government power,” said Charles Kuck, a lawyer who is part of a legal team challenging the law. “There was no evidence presented, not even anecdotal evidence, that there was a problem that needed to be solved.”
Its members will be appointed by Governor Nathan Deal, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and David Ralston, speaker of the House of Representatives. Members will be unpaid. The law sets no eligibility standards.
Deal said in an interview yesterday that he expects to make his appointments in the next few months and the review board to begin its work in January.
“The Legislature did a very good job,” he said. “I was very pleased with the final rendition of the bill.”
Kuck said the review panel was added to the legislation with no public hearing, and will invite mischief, increase paperwork and waste money without effect on illegal immigration. He said the board reminded him of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s investigations of supposed Communists in the 1950s.
“It’s like a mini-McCarthy panel,” he said.
Supporters, including state Representative Matthew Ramsey, say citizen oversight is critical and that the new board is a compromise.
“Originally, I had wanted to give private citizens the standing to sue,” said Ramsey, who sponsored the law.
More than 10,000 protesters descended on Atlanta, capital of the ninth-most-populous state, on the day the law went into effect. In reality, only a few parts of the law became enforceable July 1.
A federal court blocked two key requirements four days earlier in response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and several partners. It blocked language allowing police to check immigration status and criminalizing transportation of illegal aliens in some circumstances.
The ACLU has sued in five of the six states with new laws and won similar injunctions in four.
There were 425,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia in 2009, or 4.3 percent of the state’s population then, according to the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center. The 325,000 of them who worked composed about 6.5 percent of the labor force.
After a two-year phase-in that starts in January, Georgia companies will have to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm their employees’ legal status through government records. The system has been criticized for inefficiency, bad data and vulnerability to identity fraud, according to a 2008 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
The provisions of the law that did start July 1 include those targeted at elected officials and public employees. They add penalties and an enforcement process — including the citizen review board — to laws in effect since 2006.
Those require government to E-Verify employees and contractors and to check the legal status of noncitizens applying for “public benefits,” which include services as varied as housing assistance, adult education and business licenses.
The laws had no teeth, said D.A. King, a Marietta activist who pushed for the new measure. “We got what we could get in 2006,” he said.
The new review board will examine complaints from registered Georgia voters about public bodies’ failure to use either the E-Verify system or the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database.
If it finds a violation based on a preponderance of evidence, the board can levy fines of as much as $5,000, cut funding for local governments or strip them of eligibility for state-administered funds and programs.
Ramsey, the law’s sponsor, said the board would sanction only those who didn’t follow or agree to board-ordered remediation plans and that individuals would be fined only if their violations were knowing or willful.
Most local governments already comply with the E-Verify part of the law, said Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association.
The verification requirement for public-benefit applicants has been more problematic, she said, calling the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database “cumbersome.”
“I’ll be honest,” she said. “Some of them have found it difficult to register.”
Parrott, three hours south of Atlanta, has a population of 156. It’s one of only five jurisdictions that in the past year complied with the requirement to report a business-license applicant whose legal status was unverifiable.
He was “an Indian guy,” said Nan Riegle, Parrott’s part- time city clerk and sole employee.
“I have just him, just one guy who owns a convenience store,” she said in a phone interview. “He wanted to renew his business license.”
“I couldn’t get the system to work,” Riegle said. “I did all the things I was supposed to do. It is horrible. These little towns, we have so many mandates coming out of Atlanta, our workload has doubled.”
Riegle said she’d heard of the new penalties for failing to check benefit applicants, and about the enforcement board. She called the idea awful, while saying she’ll do her best to comply with the law.
“I can’t afford to get my little town fined,” she said.
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