By Greg Bluestein, Jeremy Redmon
Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature created the Immigration Enforcement Review Board eight years ago to hold local and state officials accountable, complaining that the federal government had failed to secure the country’s borders.
Now the state is dissolving the body even as President Donald Trump is declaring a national emergency on the southwestern border amid complaints from both civil rights groups and anti-illegal immigration advocates who have banded together to call for its dissolution.
The program was so unpopular that Georgia lawmakers unanimously voted on a measure to disband it earlier this year, and Governor Brian Kemp, who backed a pledge to round up illegal immigrants in his pickup truck, signed it into law without public explanation.
The panel’s failures underscore the challenge for state Republicans, who are calling for stricter enforcement of federal immigration rules. Kemp, in particular, has said he will keep his promise to fight illegal immigration, but has not spelled out exactly how he will do so.
The Immigration Enforcement Review Board has been empowered to investigate public complaints about violations of immigration-related state laws. Its members, appointed by Georgia’s top politicians, could issue subpoenas, swear witnesses and impose fines.
In practice, however, the body became a political tool for those seeking office and a hotbed of power struggles little used by citizens. Of the 20 complaints the board received in its first six years, all but one came from DA King, the well-known anti-illegal immigration activist.
Even King didn’t regret the board closing. In an interview, he said the panel “refused to follow its own rules” by dismissing his grievances without giving him a chance to present his arguments.
“It was a parody of a kangaroo court with corrupt leadership,” he said, “and I’m thrilled it’s over.”
In a rare show of approval, immigrant rights advocates agreed with his assessment. Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South, which provides legal aid to illegal immigrants, called the board’s demise a “significant victory”.
“Their mere existence has discouraged resource-constrained places from taking steps to welcome immigrant communities,” she said. “This development is the result of years of work by communities to expose and speak up for the issues at this facility as well as brave places, particularly the city of Decatur.”
The youngest CEO, James Balli, could not be reached immediately on Monday. Former Republican state Assemblyman Matt Ramsey, who sponsored the legislation that created the board, declined to comment.
The board was part of a wide-ranging crackdown on illegal immigration that was passed in 2011, which imposed new requirements on many companies to ensure new hires could work in the US and gave law enforcement officials the power to investigate the immigration status of some suspects.
The seven-member panel was designed to investigate complaints about local and state government officials failing to enforce state immigration laws. However, over the years few complaints have been received and fines have rarely been imposed.
His demise was documented last year by then-Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, a gubernatorial candidate who filed a complaint just before the GOP primary alleging that the city of Decatur was creating havens for criminals.
City officials accused Cagle of attempting to use the board to serve conservatives with an unsubstantiated claim, noting that the Republican was quick to summon his fight against Decatur’s liberal bastion in digital ads and blunt speeches.
Cagle did not appear for a hearing on the complaint, and at another meeting weeks later, a board member demanded that a Decatur attorney “speak to me outside in the courtroom” in a bizarre and testy confrontation.
The city got the final say by filing a lawsuit alleging the board violated state transparency laws. The board eventually settled with the city and agreed to make its case more public and pay Decatur $12,000 in legal and other costs.
The fallout left the board without its chairman and a longtime board member, both of whom resigned after Decatur’s attorney questioned whether they had exceeded their term.
“The board has taken its course. That a single person filed 95% of the complaints received by the panel shows that it simply wasn’t set up from the start,” said Shawn Hanley, a past chair of the panel. “It was probably the right time to disband the board and find better ways to help Georgia cities and counties stay compliant.”
Lawmakers, meanwhile, were fed up with the fighting. The wording to eliminate the panel was inserted into House Bill 553, a 13-page proposal originally tabled to make changes to a little-known state commission.
State Rep. Katie Dempsey, the Republican from Rome who introduced the measure, said the board had not “functioned as originally intended”. Her co-sponsor, Decatur State Assemblyman Mary Margaret Oliver, put it more precisely.
“I’m very happy to see it broken. It cost the state money. It served no purpose,” Oliver said. “I’m glad it’s gone. It didn’t do anything except cost taxpayers money.”
(c) Atlanta Journal Constitution 2019 (Atlanta, Ga.)