Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Judge blocks key parts of Georgia immigration law

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Monday temporarily blocking key provisions of a new Georgia law that aims to crack down on illegal immigration, while allowing other parts of the law to move forward. Most of the law, known as HB 87, was scheduled to go into effect Friday.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr.'s ruling blocks enforcement of two of the most controversial sections of the law. "State and local law enforcement officers and officials have no authorization to arrest, detain or prosecute anyone based upon sections 7 and 8 of HB 87 while this injunction remains in effect," Thrash ruled.

Those sections would allow police to inquire about immigration status when questioning suspects in certain criminal investigations. They also would punish people who, during the commission of a crime, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants. Something like speeding or driving without proper equipment could constitute a crime.

"The apparent legislative intent is to create such a climate of hostility, fear, mistrust and insecurity that all illegal aliens will leave Georgia," Thrash wrote.

In his 45-page ruling, the judge cited a previous court decision that said preliminary injunctions were in the public interest "when civil rights are at stake." He also wrote that state officials were attempting to overstep federal authority on immigration enforcement.

"I'm very happy, as are all those who believe the Constitution is important," said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta attorney whose firm represented some of the plaintiffs. He said the stayed provisions were poorly written and that it was unclear how they would have been enforced, if allowed to move forward.

Although the ruling was hailed as a victory by the plaintiffs, Thrash also tossed out a number of their arguments at the state's request, a point stressed by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens soon after the decision. "I appreciate the speed with which Judge Thrash ruled, given the complexity of the issues. I am pleased with the dismissal of the 4th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 'Right to Travel,' and Georgia constitutional claims by the plaintiffs -- even after this ruling, 21 of the 23 sections of HB 87 will go into effect as planned," Olens wrote in a statement.

A part of the law that will still go into effect is a provision that workers convicted of using fake identification to get jobs could be sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $250,000. The law will also require people applying for public benefits to provide certain types of identification.

Olens said his office will appeal the judge's ruling regarding sections 7 and 8.

The office of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, which supports the law, also weighed in on the judge's ruling. "Beyond refusing to help with our state's illegal immigration problem, the federal government is determined to be an obstacle. The state of Georgia narrowly tailored its immigration law to conform with existing federal law and court rulings," said Brian Robinson, the governor's deputy chief of staff for communications. "Georgians can rest assured that this battle doesn't end here."

The Georgia lawsuit is the latest battle in a nationwide skirmish between state and federal officials over who controls immigration enforcement.

Arizona's controversial law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration catapulted the issue onto the national stage last year, drawing a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice, which argues the law is unconstitutional.

In April, a three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Justice Department and against Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed Arizona's law last year. Brewer announced last month that the state would appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Dems Push Ahead With DREAM Act, as ICE Offers New Guidelines for Illegal Immigrant Cases

Sen. Dick Durbin plans to make a full-court press Tuesday to revive the debate over a controversial proposal to give illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children a path to legal status, as the Obama administration moves on a separate track to grant what some describe as "amnesty" to the same group.

Durbin, D-Ill., in announcing the first-ever Senate hearing on the so-called DREAM Act, said his proposal would "make our country stronger." Under the plan, which passed the House last year but died in the Senate, illegal immigrants who came here as children and complete two years of college or military service could earn legal status.

Several top administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, plan to testify before Durbin's subcommittee. The hearing and a recent memo from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement suggest officials are moving on two fronts to give illegal immigrant students a chance at staying.

The memo issued June 17 from ICE Director John Morton instructs staff to consider 19 factors when exercising "prosecutorial discretion" -- or the discretion an ICE attorney has in deciding whether and how to pursue or dismiss an immigration case.

The factors include how long an illegal immigrant has been in the United States as well as their criminal history. But the list also includes factors similar to those in the DREAM Act -- like whether the suspect arrived in the U.S. as a "young child," whether the suspect is pursuing an education, and whether the suspect has served in the military.

The memo made clear that certain factors -- like whether a suspect came to the U.S. as a child -- should weigh in their favor, while other factors -- like a criminal history -- should weigh against them.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, decried the new set of instructions, describing it as a gift to DREAM Act proponents. Though Durbin is pushing anew to pass the legislation, the now GOP-controlled House is unlikely to approve any such bill, even if it clears the Senate.

"By administrative fiat, they are achieving a grand-scale amnesty for large classes of illegal aliens that they have been unable to accomplish with the stalled DREAM Act legislation," FAIR said in a statement last week.

But the ICE memo falls in line with an effort by the Obama administration to prioritize immigration cases, so that illegal immigrant criminals are typically deported while those not accused of serious crimes are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. ICE statistics show that during the Obama administration, the number of removals for non-criminal illegal immigrants has gone down while the number of removals for illegal immigrant criminals has gone up.

ICE spokesman Brian Hale said the agency is trying to make the most of "limited resources" by going after the most dangerous illegal immigrants.

"The directive clearly states that the exercise of discretion is inappropriate in cases involving threats to public safety, national security and other agency priorities," he said.

Another ICE official said the agency has to set "sensible priorities" given that it receives a set amount of money from Congress with which to remove "a limited number of individuals."

The official said the administration is "doing more to keep criminal aliens who are threats to public safety -- including murderers, rapists and child molesters -- off our streets than ever before," as well as targeting employers who break immigration law.

ICE last week touted a series of raids in May that resulted in the arrest of 2,400 illegal immigrant criminals nationwide.

Hector Sanchez, director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, cheered the administration for trying to make violent illegal immigrants the priority for deportation. He also said Latino voters are "very aware" that both parties have fallen short on addressing immigration reform.

As a backdrop, a recent Latino Decisions poll listed immigration as the top concern facing Hispanics. Census figures also show Hispanics changing the electoral map -- by 2012, they'll compose one-fifth of the vote in Texas and one-quarter in California.

The latest ICE memo comes as the Houston Chronicle reported Monday on a string of internal memos from an ICE official in Houston last August that ordered attorneys to dismiss immigration cases that did not meet the "top priorities" of the agency. Though the Houston guidance was later rescinded and the agency said they "exceeded" ICE's official guidance, the Chronicle reported that Houston's office was praised internally by ICE supervisors in Washington at the time until the dismissals became public.


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