How one state struggles to enforce its immigration law
DECATUR, Ga. — Over the past few years, statehouses around the country have tried to rein in cities deemed too friendly to undocumented immigrants. But Georgia is the only state that’s created an independent board with one specific mission: Punishing cities that aren’t doing enough to crack down on illegal immigration.
Typically, that responsibility falls to state attorneys general. But in Georgia, residents can file a complaint against any city or county they judge to be breaking state immigration law.
Until a recent case against the small liberal town of Decatur, though, all but one of the complaints had come from one private citizen, an avowed anti-illegal immigration activist who’s made this his life’s calling.
Then the lieutenant governor, Republican Casey Cagle, filed a complaint accusing Decatur of violating state immigration law last year as he was running for governor. And on Facebook, he threatened to yank its state funding.
“Liberal politicians in the City of Decatur are trying to put the interests of criminal illegal aliens ahead of our safety — and I will not allow it!” Cagle wrote. (He did not respond to repeated requests from Stateline for comment.)
Few locals have heard of it, but Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board was created seven years ago, when the state passed one of the nation’s strictest immigration laws. Trying to keep track of the legal comings and goings of the IERB, as the board is known, can be dizzying.
Most of its members are not attorneys or immigration experts. All are volunteers — and all are political appointees, which in this red state makes it a majority Republican board.
And while technically not a court, the board has been given many of the powers of a court: It investigates alleged wrongdoing, subpoenas witnesses and hears testimony.
The board has the power to recommend sanctions against municipalities found to be in the wrong — and ultimately, withhold millions in state funding from them as punishment.
So far, though, it has levied just one lasting fine, for $1,000 against Atlanta. A handful of small cities, though, have been forced to spend time and money defending themselves against accusations.
Two of the immigration board members refused to step down years after their terms ended, and did so only in 2018, when they were sued by a Decatur resident and accused of violating Georgia law.
“The Georgia board is an example of what not to do, rather than a model for something effective,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a national research and advocacy group that favors limited immigration to the United States.