By Maggie Lee
A state House panel has approved a bill that supporters say is a fairly narrow proposal to help federal immigration agents eject bad guys from the country. But critics say the bill will have dire consequences.
“To the best of my looking this bill has nothing to do with anything but criminals, dispatching them properly,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, talking about Senate Bill 542.
His comment came in the middle of a roughly hour-long hearing at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
An audience of roughly 100 people came expecting an earlier version of the bill, many ready to object to it. But a new version was presented at the meeting.
Among other things, the bill now says that when Georgia law enforcement officers find out a suspect is in the U.S. without legal permission, the officers can pass that information to prosecutors. It also says that when someone is convicted of a felony, the sentencing court shall determine if the person is in the U.S. illegally, and if so, notify law enforcement.
An earlier version would have required — not simply allowed — police to tell prosecutors if they found out someone was in the country illegally. And in the previous version, judges would have needed to determine immigration status when sentencing people for all crimes, not just felonies.
But several judges said they’re not convinced that they can legally do everything the new bill would require.
And several folks from activist groups said they were worried that police taking up work related to immigration enforcement could sour the relationship between immigrant communities and police.
Dale Schwarz, an immigration lawyer who was speaking on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, said he often comes across clients who are victims of rape or spouse abuse who are afraid to go to the police and report those crimes because they or someone in their family is an undocumented worker.
Glory Kilanko is director and CEO of Women Watch Afrika, a nonprofit. Part of its mission is helping acculturation of immigrants and refugees who arrive in the States.
She said she works hard to convince immigrants and refugees that their immigration status doesn’t mean they have to accept being victimized, and that they can call the police. She said she was glad to see the new version of the bill, but she said women can’t speak up when bills like 542 pass.
“We come from war-torn countries, we have been traumatized. People in uniform have not been known to be our friends,” said Kilanko.
But one of the bill’s supporters, state Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah said that the bill goes after the kinds of abusers Kilanko is talking about.
“We need to make sure that we’re removing bad guys from this country … I don’t think anybody up here wants to capture good folks,” he said.
After approval via a non-unanimous voice vote of the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, the bill now heads to the state House Rules Committee, which will decide whether to schedule it for a floor vote. The Senate would then need to agree to the amended version before it could be sent for Gov. Nathan Deal’s review.