The first legal volley in what will likely be years of court battles over the constitutionality of the state’s immigration reform law took place Monday when a federal judge granted an injunction delaying enforcement of two controversial measures until a lawsuit against the state is resolved.
The injunction blocks portions of the law that criminalized transporting or aiding undocumented immigrants, and that empowered law enforcement to check the immigration status of people who could not immediately produce documentation.
Despite the setback, the state can appeal the federal court decision to the 11th circuit court, who could potentially overturn the injunction.
During a hearing a week earlier Judge Thomas Thrash listened to arguments from both sides and scrutinized the actual intent of the law.
“What do you and the General Assembly say is the purpose of this statute?” Thrash asked the state’s attorney Devon Orland, according to the court transcript. “Is the purpose to drive all the undocumented non–citizens....out of Georgia?”
“The pupose – the public interest in the statute, I think, is actually more clear than that,” explained Orland. “It’s to save the resources of the State of Georgia in medical care, imprisonment.”
How exactly the state is going to save money on imprisonment by detaining any or all of Georgia’s estimated 425,000 undocumented aliens was never clearly explained. But it is taxpayers who will have to pay for the overcrowded jails, the additional strain on local law enforcement and the costs of the state’s legal defense team.
While the law hasn’t even taken effect yet (it’s supposed to on July 1), the repercussions of the new legislation are already being felt.
The mere threat of the law – signed by the Governor in May – has been sufficient to route seasonal laborers into other states, opening up 11,000 farming jobs, which were so unappealing to state’s unemployed (nearly 1 in 10 Georgians) that the Governor asked the Department of Corrections whether probationers could fill the gap.
The fruits and veggies left unharvested are estimated at a $300 million loss for Georgia’s agriculture sector.
“I’m proud to participate in this challenge to Georgia’s harsh ”papers please“ law, which runs counter to America’s greatest values and threatens to run my town’s economy to the ground,” wrote Paul Bridges, the mayor of Uvalda, GA, a town of 600 located southwest of Vidalia. Bridges joined the lawsuit against the state and penned an opinion piece that ran on CNN’s website last week.
Bridges is just one of a growing number of Republicans who now stand in opposition to the law. Former Governor Sonny Perdue is another.
“There is a real fear and perception that Georgia is probably not a state to be seen in if you’re of a different color,” Perdue said during an interview with WXIA–TV in Atlanta last week.
Whether or not the intent of the law is to chase of undocumented immigrants, many families in Chatham County have already moved.
“People have already left,” says a West Chatham business owner who asked not to be named for fear that his clientele would be targeted. He has watched a significant decrease in his business in the last several weeks, and is considering whether or not to reduce the size of his store balance out the losses.
“Local businesses will soon be deprived of reliable revenue provided by the workers – both with and without papers – who contribute to our economy,” writes Bridges in his letter.
Although agriculture was the first sector to feel the pinch, more long term effects are likely. While supporters of the law have been quick to point out illegal immigrants’ use of social services as an economic drain, they fail to recognize the group’s contributions to the state’s sales tax coffers.
The state has seen moderate revenue growth in the first quarter of the year, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the next report from the Department of Revenue shows a decline.
If the law scares off 20,000 undocumented aliens (less than five percent of the state’s undocumented population), who hypothetically spend $5,000 each per year on food, clothing and other goods, that is a loss of $100 million for in–state businesses.
While revenue impacts remain speculative, one certainty is the impact this law will have on legal immigrants, who could be stopped and interrogated on a daily basis with no recourse.
When Judge Thrash asked Orland how to prevent selective enforcement, Orland’s reply was, “if law enforcement wishes to conduct themselves in a prejudicial manner, they are going to do that...But this statute didn’t create that problem.”
So because prejudice exists already, there’s no reason not to codify some of it inside the framework of this law (part of which prevents officers from being held liable for attempting to enforce the law).
Orland summed it up in the courtroom: “It may be unfair. It may be unkind, but that doesn’t make it unconstitutional.”
That depends on who you ask.
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