Immigrants not targets, officers say
By MERRITT MELANCON
Published Sunday, July 03, 2011
When a federal judge last week enjoined Georgia authorities from using a new immigration law to check the citizenship status of suspects, most local law enforcement agencies shrugged.
The state law never was going to really change the way local officers did their jobs, many sheriffs said -- not when they barely have money to patrol the streets and catch burglars.
"We're going from call to call," said Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith. "I don't expect the Barrow County Sheriff's Office to stop someone or go into an area where we think there might be illegal immigrants. ... We're not going to go out and look for anybody."
Every jail in Georgia already is required to check immigration status of a suspect when he's booked on serious charges.
The new law -- House Bill 87 -- would have allowed police officers on the street to hold someone suspected of a crime long enough to check his immigration status even if they don't yet have probable cause to arrest him for a crime. Opponents of this part of the bill worried that local deputies and officers could feign criminal suspicion to justify detaining individuals or families because of their race or the language they were speaking.
Even if the law had not been put on hold last week by a federal judge, local officers would have been hard-pressed to use the law correctly much less harass people with it, said Terry Norris, president of the Georgia Sheriff's Association. No one has the jail space, manpower or the money to let that happen, he said.
"I think that we're going to do what we've always done," Norris said. "I think there are a lot of people who believe that the sheriff's office and other law enforcement groups are actually going out there rounding people up, determining they're not here legally, calling the feds and then transporting them to some facility that the feds operate. The reality is, that's not going to happen."
Since January, Barrow County has been partnering with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain people who ICE asks them to pick up. Deputies will forward tips to ICE if they find out that someone may be an undocumented immigrant, but deputies don't pick up people just so they can check their citizenship, Smith said.
Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry's office has the same partnership with ICE, but deputies have contacted the feds only a handful of times in the past year -- and the state law likely wouldn't affect the department.
"As far we could see there's nothing in the law that would change anything operationally for us," Berry said.
But the law already has changed the relationship between immigrant communities and their local deputies and officers in some places.
Last week, a woman contacted Athens-Clarke police to report that she had been raped a week before. She told detectives that she waited to report the rape because she was worried officers would detain her and her family, police Chief Jack Lumpkin said.
"The victim was hesitant and reported late because she was afraid we were going to question her and her family members over their immigration status," Lumpkin said. "The anxiety level is high. ... We do not want to create a situation where individuals are fearful of reporting crimes to the police, creating voids in communication.
"But under Georgia law, which we were are sworn to enforce, we will not create the atmosphere of an immigration sanctuary."
Though a federal judge Monday temporarily blocked a part of the law that authorizes police to check the immigration status of suspects, the rest of the law took effect Friday.
Among those provisions are sections that make it a felony to use false information or documentation when applying for a job and create an immigration review board to investigate complaints about government officials not complying with state laws related to illegal immigration.
Starting Jan. 1, businesses with 500 or more employees must use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires. That requirement will be phased in by July 2013 for all businesses with more than 10 employees. Also starting Jan. 1, applicants for public benefits must provide at least one state or federally issued "secure and verifiable" document.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Immigrants not targets, officers say