Georgia's End Run Around the Federal Government

By Erika Lee, associate professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

While U.S. senators and congressmen wrangle over negotiations on federal immigration legislation, state politicians in Georgia decided to take matters into their own hands this week.

On Monday, April, 17 Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed a sweeping immigration bill that may be among the toughest in the nation. The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act requires all adults to demonstrate their legal status before seeking many state-administered benefits. It sanctions employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and mandates that companies with state contracts check the immigration status of their employees. The law will also require police to check the immigration status of people they arrest to see if they face deportation orders. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the law “to go into effect on July 1, 2007? is believed to be the first comprehensive immigration package to make it through a statehouse this session. (Miami Herald “Georgia Governor signs immigration
" by Shannon McCaffrey AP)

The Georgia act is significant on several levels. First, it makes clear that in this current immigration debate, what happens in our state governments is just as important as what happens in our national capitol. In fact, local and state governments have historically used their own legislatures to spur the federal government into action. In the nineteenth century, California attempted to ban Chinese immigrants within its borders several times before the U.S. government reminded Sacramento that immigration was a federal, not a state, issue. Since the 1980s, states have taken an increasingly active role in monitoring immigrants within their jurisdictions, often with the assistance of the federal government. A little-known provision of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act established a system to train local law enforcement and correctional agencies to enforce federal immigration law in respect to aliens changed with an aggravated felony. And states, including Minnesota, want local law enforcement officers to play even greater roles in enforcing federal immigration laws. Secondly, the fact that a state like Georgia “which has historically attracted only small numbers of immigrants“ is now at the forefront of the immigration debate demonstrates how far reaching the issue has become. Lastly, the Georgia law also reflects a growing trend in the larger debate over immigration. Politicians are increasingly careful to avoid charges that they are "anti-immigrant," a label that can be a huge liability for law-makers trying to capture more of the Hispanic vote. Instead, they insist
that they only want the laws of the nation enforced. In signing the Georgia bill on Monday, Governor Perdue, a Republican, said: "I want to make this clear we are not, Georgia's government is not, and this bill is not, anti-immigrant. We simply believe that everyone who lives in our state needs to abide by our laws." Distinguishing between "good" legal immigrants and "bad" illegal immigrants is politically effective. But in this highly charged and nativist environment, I doubt that federal law enforcement officers or Georgia state administrators will be able to distinguish the "good" from the "bad." At the same signing ceremony, State Representative Melvin Everson seemed to conflate the illegal immigration problem (denounced by him as a "cancer") with all Spanish-speaking immigrants. "The last time I checked," Mr. Everson said, "America was the land of English, not Spanish." (New York Times “Georgia Enacts a Tough Law on Immigrants? by The Associated Press April 18th 2006)

We can expect more states to pass similar laws. The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act is a sign of times to come, especially if politicians in DC fail to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And even if they do, it is likely that laws like the Georgia one will have a more direct effect on immigrants in their everyday lives than any federal legislation.

Erika Lee is associate professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Erika Lee
Associate Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of History
University of Minnesota
614 Social Sciences Building
267 19th Ave South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
work: 612/624-9569
fax: 612/624-7096

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This page contains a single entry by Immigration History Research Center published on May 30, 2006 12:34 PM.

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