Tough illegal immigration law ignored
Legislature provided no funds for enforcement; municipalities fail to register for program
By CAMERON McWHIRTER, MARY LOU PICKEL
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, January 25, 2009
A key goal of Georgia’s 2006 law cracking down on illegal immigration was simple and controversial: stop undocumented immigrants from earning wages paid by taxpayers.Supporters heralded the provision as one of the nation’s toughest because it orders local governments, their contractors and subcontractors to confirm the legal status of new hires.
A review of the Homeland Security database shows that 21 county governments out of 159 have not registered with E-Verify. None of these counties were in metro Atlanta or other urban areas of the state. In nine of the counties that did not register, the school systems did sign up for E-Verify. And 234 chartered cities and towns out of 536, most of them small, rural communities, have yet to sign up.
But the provision has amounted to less than proponents hoped and critics feared. No one in state government is enforcing the law. No one at the state level has checked to see whether governments and businesses are complying. And nothing happens to them if they don’t.
A year and a half after the law required every government in Georgia to sign up with the federal Homeland Security Department to verify the legal status of new hires, the Georgia Department of Labor has no idea what agencies or governments are complying. The department is tasked with setting guidelines for implementing the 2006 Immigration Security and Compliance Act.
Supporters of the law say if this basic task isn’t done, they can’t have confidence that the rest of the law is being taken seriously. Other provisions call for illegal immigrants arrested for a felony or DUI to be reported to immigration authorities, and for governments to make sure they don’t give welfare to illegal immigrants.
The reason for the lack of accountability: The Legislature never provided money to monitor the law.
“As far as any enforcement responsibilities under the law, we don’t have any,” Labor Department spokesman Sam Hall said.
Hall said the agency posted guidelines on its Web site and offered to do random audits — if it received funding. Asked whether anyone in state government knows which agencies and governments are complying with the law, Hall said: “There is no central agency that has the authority to do that.”
Many sign up year late
The law, which started as SB 529, requires all government offices to sign up for the federal employment verification program called E-Verify. It’s a free national database designed to check whether someone can legally work in the country.All businesses with more than 100 employees doing government work are supposed to be registered by now. The smallest businesses doing work with governments aren’t required to sign up until July.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found most Georgia governments have signed up for the computer program that matches an employee’s name against Social Security and immigration data. Many were a year late in doing so. But some smaller governments still haven’t signed up.More importantly, no one has determined whether governments that have signed up are actually using it.Local officials who routinely use the system said E-Verify hasn’t had an effect on their hiring. In many towns, hiring has slowed because of the economic downturn.
Most metro Atlanta governments have enrolled in the program. Notable exceptions include Doraville and Lithonia. College Park signed up Jan. 13 after being contacted by the AJC.Rhonda Blackmon, the city clerk of Doraville, said the city will sign up for the program. Lithonia Police Chief Willie Rosser said, “This is the first I’ve heard we had to do it.”‘There is no stick’
The law contains other ways to crack down on illegal immigration. It uses the state tax code to tighten loopholes for those who declare themselves “independent contractors.” Some employers use independent contractors as a way around hiring laws. If employers don’t follow the new tax rules, they could be penalized if the state Department of Revenue audited their business.The provision requiring jailers to check the legal status of anyone booked on a felony or a DUI also has problems. For instance, a prisoner may bond out of jail before the feds call to hold the person on immigration violations.“There is no state oversight of any of this stuff,” said Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.
Mark Newman, an attorney at Troutman Sanders who advises businesses about the immigration law, said “most businesses are clueless” about what the compliance act requires. He said he wasn’t surprised by slow response from counties and local governments.“There is no stick,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like there is much motivation or incentive.”The absence of enforcement has been frustrating to state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), who was the lead sponsor of the bill and a vocal opponent of illegal immigration. Rogers, who is Senate majority leader, said he does not plan to introduce any enforcement changes to the law this year. He introduced such an amendment last year that became mired in the House.
Therefore, he’s waiting for the House to take action. Rogers said he has had many conversations with local and county officials who say they didn’t think they had to comply with the law. Many governments were slow to sign up.“The argument is always, ‘I didn’t know I had to,’ ” Rogers said. “Some don’t know they have to, and some simply aren’t doing their job.”
Enforcement funding iffy
Supporters of the law argue the Legislature needs to spend money on enforcement. In a news conference this month at the state Capitol, D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, a Marietta-based group pressing for stricter immigration laws, said the Immigration Security and Compliance Act “is being laughed at by many of the local officials in this state. … I never dreamed it would be the local governments of Georgia that would defy the law.” Opponents argue the lack of compliance is proof the legislation is unworkable. They contend the cash-strapped state shouldn’t spend money on enforcement. “This is just a bad law and a bad idea,” immigration attorney Charles Kuck said. “It’s a waste of time and money and effort, and it gave the state a black eye.”
Between the two sides are local government officials.“Small cities with few employees, or a part-time manager, may not know they have to comply with E-Verify,” said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. Janice Truhan, city clerk of Jonesboro, signed up in July and has been following instructions and tutorials ever since. Lately, she said, the E-Verify system has been acting up and won’t let her process new applications after she enters her password. “It’s not an easy system to use,” Truhan said.
King said he will push this session for money to enforce the legislation or to authorize the state to withhold money if governments don’t comply. But Kuck said that the state, facing a large budget shortfall, probably won’t do anything to finance enforcement.“It will just sit there,” he said of the law. “No one in the state of Georgia will vote to overturn it because it would be political suicide.”
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