published Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

7 appointed to enforce new law on immigrants

  • photo
    In this Dec. 10, 2010 file photo, a worker tears off the leaves of a Vidalia onion plant before planting its roots into the soil on an onion farm in Lyons, Ga.. A Georgia state lawmaker on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 filed legislation that targets illegal immigrants in the work force and is drawing criticism from the state's No. 1 industry, agriculture. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

ATLANTA — Seven people have been appointed to a new board to look into complaints about state and local officials failing to comply with state laws related to immigration, including a lobbyist who has pushed for crackdowns on illegal immigration.

The Immigration Enforcement Review Board, which is to meet at least once every three months, was created by the state’s tough new law on illegal immigration, much of which went into effect July 1.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Phil Kent, who has been active at the Georgia Capitol advocating tough measures to combat illegal immigration. He is also a spokesman for the Group Americans for Immigration Control.

“I was a supporter of HB87 and believe in the fact that we do need common-sense immigration control,” Kent said, referring to Georgia’s new law.

Also appointed by Deal are former Fulton County GOP Chairman Shawn Hanley and former state representative and lawyer Ben Vinson. Appointed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle are Dallas, Ga., Mayor Boyd Austin and Coweta County Sheriff Mike Yeager. Appointed by House Speaker David Ralston are lawyer Robert Mumford and Colquitt County Commissioner Terry Clark.

The board will have the power to investigate complaints, hold hearings, subpoena documents and witnesses, and take disciplinary action. Public employees or officials found to have “knowingly and willfully violated or failed to abide by” the laws can be punished by a fine of up to $5,000.

The law’s author, Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, originally included language in his bill that would have allowed Georgia residents to sue local and state officials they believed were violating state laws relating to immigration. But he agreed to the review board after several organizations and individuals raised concerns during legislative committee meetings that that could give rise to frivolous lawsuits that would be costly for local governments.

The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia worked with Ramsey on the idea for the board. Legislative director Clint Mueller said he’s pleased with the composition of the board.

“It looks pretty balanced,” he said. “Of course we’ve got to give it time to work and see how they rule on any complaints that come before them.”

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and a staunch opponent of the new law, believes the law could still create problems for local governments.

“Here we have a state law opening the flood gates for frivolous complaints, and local governments may have to devote scarce resources to responding to those complaints,” he said.

D.A. King, an activist who argues for stricter enforcement of the country’s immigration laws and who advised legislators on the new law and helped get it passed, said he hopes the board members are well-versed in state laws dealing with immigration.

“I think I would have been a natural for it, but I’m not surprised, politics being what it is,” King said, reacting to the appointees.

The new law did not specify any qualifications for board members. The law provides for three members to be appointed by the governor, two by the lieutenant governor and two by the House speaker for a two-year term. A board chair is to be selected by a majority vote of the members. Members will not be paid for their service but will be reimbursed for costs associated with their mission

The board is charged with investigating and reviewing complaints filed by any Georgia registered voter that a state or local government employee or official is violating state laws related to immigration. Those include a law that requires government agencies and their contractors to use a federal database called E-Verify to check that new hires are eligible to work in the U.S. and another that requires public agencies to use another federal database to check the eligibility of applicants for public benefits, like food stamps.

Georgia’s law targeting illegal immigration was signed this year. Many parts of it were challenged in court by a coalition of civil liberties and immigrant outreach groups, as well as some individuals. A federal judge in June blocked two sections of the law, a decision that has been appealed by the state.

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