“We’re looking for every tool we can to address this problem,” state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, said this week in an interview. “And we know that the number-one tool is cutting off access to jobs” that draw illegal immigrants to Georgia.
Ramsey was the chief sponsor of HB 87, the controversial new immigration law signed last week by Gov. Nathan Deal. The bill has been described by Ramsey and other advocates as an effort to crack down both on employers who hire illegal workers and on the workers themselves. Its critics, on the other hand, compare it to a highly controversial law in Arizona, which among other things allows law-enforcement officers to detain and check the immigration status of anyone subject to a “lawful stop.”
Both claims are overblown.
Although federal courts may come to a different conclusion, the new Georgia law strikes me as considerably less dangerous to civil liberties than the law in Arizona, parts of which have been suspended by federal courts. Under HB 87, police officers can check immigration status only when an officer “has probable cause to believe that a suspect has committed a criminal violation.” While that provision still has the potential to be abused, it reduces the fear that innocent people will be detained for suspicion of walking or driving while Hispanic.
However, Ramsey’s claim that the new law strikes hard at the core problem — the willingness of businesses to hire illegal labor — also strikes me as exaggerated.
The new law does require that businesses sign an affidavit that they have registered to use the federal E-verify system to check the status of newly hired employees. Without such an affidavit, businesses will not be able to register with government to do business.
However, the bill contains no provision for auditing businesses to ensure that they keep that pledge. According to Ramsey, legislators chose not to allow such enforcement audits out of fear of they would infringe on federal authority and thus be ruled unconstitutional. That’s dubious — the new Arizona law, for example, contains some pretty strong enforcement language, and those provisions have not been challenged.
But Georgia legislators showed no such restraint in targeting employees for criminal sanction. For example, the law prescribes a prison term of up to 15 years for using a phony ID to get a job. Refuting criticism that such a penalty is excessive showboating, Ramsey pointed out that current law already contains a penalty of up to 10 years for use of false identification. The law merely adds five years to the crime when such ID is used to obtain a job.
However, if an existing penalty of 10 years hasn’t discouraged illegal job-seekers, adding five years to the sentence isn’t going to change anyone’s calculation in the slightest. Like other aspects of the law, it is an effort to reap political credit for a tough approach without really changing a thing.
The bill also creates a commission to study a possible state-run “guest worker” program. The plan would conceivably be modeled after a plan adopted in Utah, which gives illegal immigrants state-issued documents to allow them to work in Utah agriculture.
The problems with such an approach are manifest. First, it’s unconstitutional, as Ramsey concedes. Second, the demand for such a provision from south Georgia employers demonstrates that despite public denials, they understand quite well how much they rely on illegal immigrant labor.
Most important, it reflects the deep cynicism and hypocrisy that permeates this debate. It suggests that it would be OK to overlook the illegal status of immigrants as long as they are confined to back-breaking labor in the fields, but not if they aspire to anything more. It would amount to an amnesty-light, with employers reaping all the benefits but the workers reaping almost none.
– Jay Bookman