The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
For months, civil and immigrant rights groups have urged the Obama administration to join their court fight against Georgia’s tough new law targeting illegal immigration.
A group of Atlanta-area immigration attorneys went so far as to sue the White House in federal court here, seeking to compel it to challenge Georgia’s House Bill 87. The White House never budged.
But on Monday the Justice Department filed suit to block a similar law in Alabama, just as it did in Arizona last year.
On Tuesday, federal officials indicated they had not made a final decision about whether to challenge Georgia’s law, saying they were still studying it and similar measures in Indiana, South Carolina and Utah.
“To the extent we find state laws that interfere with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration law, we are prepared to bring suit,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman.
The wait has frustrated opponents of Georgia’s law. One local immigration attorney suggested politics might be at play and said the White House is treating Georgia like a “red-headed stepchild.”
On the other side, supporters of these states’ immigration laws say the feds should butt out and spend more time sealing the nation’s borders and enforcing its immigration laws. They argue the states needed to act to protect taxpayer-funded resources from hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
Like Arizona’s and Alabama’s laws, Georgia’s statute would punish people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants and empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. In June, a federal judge in Atlanta temporarily halted these two provisions in Georgia’s law following a court challenge from civil and immigrant rights groups.
The judge dismissed other claims against Georgia’s law. And much of the rest of the statute went into effect July 1, including a provision that severely punishes adults who use fake identification to get jobs here. Georgia is appealing the judge’s decision to put the other parts of the law on hold.
On Monday, the Justice Department sued Alabama, arguing its far-reaching law would intrude on the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration. Last year, the Justice Department used the same legal argument to block parts of Arizona’s law.
Some attorneys involved in the Georgia case say federal officials could bolster their arguments by intervening. Obama criticized Georgia’s law in April, calling it a mistake. But subsequent inaction by the White House has irritated immigrant rights activists here.
In June, a Norcross law firm sued the Obama administration in a federal court in Atlanta, seeking to force it to challenge Georgia’s law. The suit says Georgia’s statute conflicts with federal law and foreign policy. Court records show little activity in that suit. And the Justice Department declined to comment on the matter.
Local immigration attorneys speculated federal officials have decided to take on Alabama because it has enacted the most stringent immigration law among the states. For example, unlike Georgia’s law, Alabama’s statute requires public school officials to track the immigration status of their students. Critics say this provision is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, opponents of Georgia’s law wondered aloud about what might be motivating the White House.
“I hope this is not political,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney who is among those fighting Georgia’s law in court. “I hope they are not picking Alabama because Obama has zero chance of winning Alabama and maybe there is a different view in Georgia.” Kuck added about Georgia: “It’s like you are the red-headed stepchild.”
The author of Georgia’s law — Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City — said he worked on more than 16 drafts of the legislation, partly to protect it against court challenges.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow they brought suit or joined the [American Civil Liberties Union],” he said of the federal government.
On Monday, the sponsor of Alabama’s law suggested the federal government should stay out of the courts and instead focus on curbing illegal immigration.
“If the Justice Department put as much effort into solving the illegal immigration problem as it is putting into blocking our law and others like it, the U.S. might make some headway on the issue,” said Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, a Republican.