Originally published in Pew’s Stateline, the below is from the influential Governing Magazine” From our eight years of personal experience with the IERB, we will have plenty to add soon, but a “parody of a Kangaroo Court” is a good start.
An Example of What Not to Do’: The State Where Immigration Law Is Enforced by Political Appointees Granted the Power of Courts
Over the past few years, statehouses around the country have tried to rein in cities deemed too friendly to undocumented immigrants. But Georgia is the only state that’s created an independent board with one specific mission: Punishing cities that aren’t doing enough to crack down on illegal immigration.
Typically, that responsibility falls to state attorneys general. But in Georgia, residents can file a complaint against any city or county they judge to be breaking state immigration law.
Until a recent case against the small liberal town of Decatur, though, all but one of the complaints had come from one private citizen, an avowed anti-illegal immigration activist who’s made this his life’s calling.
Then the lieutenant governor, Republican Casey Cagle, filed a complaint accusing Decatur of violating state immigration law last year as he was running for governor. And on Facebook, he threatened to yank its state funding.
“Liberal politicians in the City of Decatur are trying to put the interests of criminal illegal aliens ahead of our safety — and I will not allow it!” Cagle wrote. (He did not respond to repeated requests from Stateline for comment.)
Few locals have heard of it, but Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board was created seven years ago, when the state passed one of the nation’s strictest immigration laws. Trying to keep track of the legal comings and goings of the IERB, as the board is known, can be dizzying.
Most of its members are not attorneys or immigration experts. All are volunteers — and all are political appointees, which in this red state, makes it a majority Republican board.
And while technically not a court, the board has been given many of the powers of a court: It investigates alleged wrongdoing, subpoenas witnesses and hears testimony.
The board has the power to recommend sanctions against municipalities found to be in the wrong — and ultimately, withhold millions in state funding from them as punishment.
So far, though, it has levied just one lasting fine, for $1,000 against Atlanta. A handful of small cities, though, have been forced to spend time and money defending themselves against accusations.
Two of the immigration board members refused to step down years after their terms ended, and did so only in 2018, when they were sued by a Decatur resident and accused of violating Georgia law.
“The Georgia board is an example of what not to do, rather than a model for something effective,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a national research and advocacy group that favors limited immigration to the United States.
“It’s troubling,” Vaughan said, “to have that authority go to a politically appointed group that lacks expertise in the subject matter.”
The city of Decatur has filed two lawsuits against the board, saying it has violated public meetings and public records laws; the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined one of the suits in December. (Under James Balli’s tenure as chair, he has made efforts to make the board more transparent, including releasing records to a reporter.)
Balli, said it is just complying with state immigration law in its work, and until that law is changed, it’ll continue with its charge.
The 2011 law the board is focused on, HB 87, permits law enforcement officers to stop anyone they deem to be “suspicious” and ask for their papers. The law also requires cities and counties, and many businesses, to use E-Verify to ensure workers are in the country legally; and punishes those who use fake identification to get work.
“The goal is compliance, not punishment,” Balli said.
“We’re not anti-immigration,” Balli said, adding that his grandmother was an immigrant from Mexico. “We don’t want that to be the picture of this board.”
Atlanta’s Hippie Cousin
Decatur’s been described as a speck of blue in a sea of red, and that is true — up to a point. There have always been specks of blue in Georgia, and the state is increasingly trending purple. In November, Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Republican Brian Kemp in the race for governor.
But Decatur, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it, is “renowned as a bastion of Southern liberalism.” It’s Atlanta’s hippie cousin — population 23,800 — 4 square miles of bungalows, yoga studios and farm-to-table fare. In 2016, 86 percent of voters here cast their lot with Hillary Clinton.
Both Decatur and its next-door neighbor Atlanta issued directives in 2017 ordering local police not to detain immigrants, barring a court order. Decatur doesn’t even have a jail — and has few immigrants.
But for the past year, it is Decatur, not Atlanta, that has been in battle with the state, fighting accusations that it is a sanctuary city.
And even though the IERB has yet to yank state funding in any of the cases it’s heard, Decatur officials say they worry the city could lose millions in funding if the board tried to take action.
Many critics of the board, who fall on both sides of the immigration battle, have said it should be disbanded.
“It’s a court that operates in very strange, mostly nontransparent ways and yet has a tremendous amount of power,” said Naomi Tsu, who oversees the legal and advocacy work on behalf of immigrants in the Deep South for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. The center has profiled the IERB on its “Hatewatch” blog.
Then there’s Marietta, Georgia, resident D.A. King, who’s filed 20 of the 22 complaints that have come before the board. He called the IERB a “parody of a kangaroo court.”
King, a Detroit native, describes himself as a nationalist “along the lines of a George Washington,” but says that he’s not a white supremacist. Nor is he against legal immigration. “My adopted sister is from Korea,” he said.
“I’m trying to educate people about immigration. It’s about the law and what’s good for America and Americans.” Read the rest of the report here.