A new immigration law coming into effect next month will allow law enforcement officers to check whether citizens are in the country illegally.
Georgia House Bill 87 "authorizes" law enforcement to check immigration status of a suspect who cannot provide an accepted form of identification. The bill, also known as the "Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011," becomes effective July 1.
Police departments and sheriff's offices around the state are drafting guidelines spelling out what their officers can and can't do under the new law, said Dale Mann, director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.
Statesboro Police Commander J. R. Holloway doesn’t expect operations in his department to be affected very much.
If an officer questioning a person for other reasons has cause to suspect a person is an illegal alien, he will check the person’s status and contact federal agents, but “We won’t go out hunting folks” for the purpose of learning whether they are in the country legally or otherwise, he said.
If a suspect stopped on other charges proves to be an illegal alien, officers will “contact immigration” to see whether federal agents will press charges, he said.
Bulloch County Sheriff Lynn Anderson said deputies would do the same, but questioned whether federal immigration officers would retrieve the suspects in a timely manner.
If local charges apply, the suspects will likely be jailed anyway, but Anderson questioned what would happen when a person is discovered to be in the country illegally, but there are no local charges against him.
He said he would further review the law after receiving information from the Georgia Sheriff’s Association which usually distributes advisories regarding new laws before they come into effect.
If immigration agents do come for suspects found to be illegal, any minor local charges would likely be waived, since the suspect would be deported. But felony charges would remain even if the person is deported, he said.
Many officers on patrol rarely have the capability to check immigration status while out in the field, Mann said. As a result, a person’s immigration is likely to be determined during booking, providing the person has committed an offense worthy of arrest.
If an officer discovers a subject is an illegal alien, he may only detain the person if federal immigration authorities agree to accept the person. Often, immigration authorities prefer to focus on felony offenders, Mann said.
Georgia House Bill 87 also penalizes people who, during the commission of another crime, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants. The law also makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job. Another provision, set to be phased in starting in January, will require many businesses to check the immigration status of new hires.
The new law enforcement provisions are very similar to those in new laws put in place earlier this year in Utah and last year in Arizona. All or parts of both those laws have been blocked by federal judges, and civil liberties groups have said they plan to sue to try to block Georgia's law from taking effect, according to reports.
Anderson said he doesn’t expect the new law to be a big issue. “I don’t know whether it will have significant impact here,” he said. “We’ll wait and see.”
“This is going to be a new one for me, too,” Holloway said, adding his department will handle the cases according to the new law as they arise.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.