ATLANTA (CN) – A federal judge blocked parts of Georgia’s new anti-immigration law a few days before the legislation was set to take effect, but he left other provisions intact pending the outcome of the constitutional challenge to the law.
On April 14, Georgia passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, known as House Bill 87. The law authorizes the police to check the immigration status of criminal suspects who cannot provide specified identity documents, such as a valid Georgia driver’s license. Officers may detain suspects and take them to a state or federal prison if they conclude the suspects are in the United States illegally. Other provisions require Georgia agencies to accept only “secure and verifiable” identity documents for official purposes and prohibit transportation and harbor of illegal immigrants. Most provisions were scheduled to take effect on July 1.
Federal judges in Arizona, Indiana and Utah have blocked similar laws over the past year after opponents in those states challenged their constitutionality.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups, businesses and individuals challenged House Bill 87, which they say violates the Supremacy Clause, the Fourth and 14th Amendments and the constitutional right to travel. They sued to block the provisions that would go into effect this week.
Georgia argued that the opponents lacked standing to file suit, since they could not realistically prove they would be harmed by the immigration law.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash disagreed. He ruled that the plaintiffs could trigger an immigration investigation under House Bill 87 without actually committing a criminal violation. “The court may assume that police officers will investigate the plaintiffs’ immigration status each time there is probable cause to believe the plaintiffs have committed a crime,” Thrash wrote.
Under the new law, individual plaintiffs such as immigration attorneys may be prosecuted for transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants while representing them in civil matters, the order states.
Thrash also ruled that the plaintiff organizations have standing to sue since they claim that educating members about the new law would cause them to divert resources from regular activities such as citizenship classes, English language classes and assistance in completing applications.
Federal law likely pre-empts the challenged provisions, the court ruled.
In his 45-page ruling, Thrash expressed concern that the anti-immigration bill would give local authorities significant discretion to design their own immigration-enforcement strategies, taking on a regulatory role reserved for the federal government.
“HB87 gives local officers discretion in determining whether to initiate an investigation, what ‘reasonable means’ to take during an investigation, and how to proceed at the conclusion of the investigation if the suspect is confirmed to be an illegal alien,” Thrash wrote. “Such discretion poses a serious risk that HB87 will result in inconsistent civil immigration policies not only between federal and state governments, but among law enforcement jurisdictions within Georgia. That risk is compounded by the threat of other states creating their own immigration laws.”
The judge agreed with the April 2011 Arizona ruling, noting that the challenged provisions would create a state system for prosecuting and interpreting immigration law, which would undermine federal authority “to establish immigration enforcement priorities and strategies.”
Thrash also addressed the effects of the law on foreign relations, noting that Mexico and other countries have hinted that the law could damage trade, tourism and diplomatic relations.
States that claim the federal government is doing nothing about illegal immigration are exhibiting “belief in a myth,” he wrote, citing statistics that prove the federal government deports hundreds of undocumented immigrants every day, giving priority to removing convicted criminals and previously deported aliens.
Thrash rejected the plaintiffs’ assertions that the law violates constitutional rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments. He also threw out the argument that the bill “penalizes the exercise” of the right to travel, noting that the federal government does not accept driver’s licenses as proof of citizenship, regardless of which state issued the license.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution that the state would appeal Thrash’s decision.