Georgia Immigration Law: Many Agencies Fail to Comply

Many city and county government agencies across Georgia have failed to comply with a key part of the state's year-old anti-illegal immigration law, putting them at risk of losing access to state loans and grants, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of public records.
by | June 25, 2012
 

By Jeremy Redmon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many city and county government agencies across Georgia have failed to comply with a key part of the state's year-old anti-illegal immigration law, putting them at risk of losing access to state loans and grants, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of public records.

The funding -- which includes state community development block grants -- helps Georgia cities and counties maintain their jails, manage development, encourage commerce and boost employment.

At issue is the centerpiece of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, which is aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from taking jobs from U.S. citizens and stopping taxpayer support for government contractors who hire illegal immigrants.

That provision requires all but the smallest private employers and government agencies and contractors to use a federal work authorization program called E-Verify. The program helps employers ensure that newly hired employees are authorized to work in the United States.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found that numerous city and county agencies -- including Chamblee, Sandy Springs and the DeKalb County Housing Authority -- did not file required reports on time to confirm that they and their contractors are using E-Verify.

So many agencies have failed to submit the reports that the state is preparing to send out a mass mailing this week to remind them that their state funding could be in jeopardy if they don't comply.

The lapses highlight the complexities of enforcing a law that will eventually touch tens of thousands of employers throughout the state, especially in a time when state and local governments face budget and staff cutbacks. The newspaper's investigation also found that:

It is impossible to confirm that all private employers required to use E-Verify are doing so, because of the way state and federal records are kept.

Beyond keeping tabs on the paperwork filed by government agencies, the state has no way to check their compliance, because there is no money for performance audits.

Some local governments, which bear much of the burden for enforcing the law, are confused about how to follow it. Sandy Springs, for example, sent a letter this year to 6,700 businesses that included erroneous information about the E-Verify requirement.

The Barnesville Housing Authority signed up to use E-Verify Tuesday, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked why it was not registered.

State lawmakers approved the sweeping law in April of last year, saying it would help block illegal immigrants from taking jobs from legal U.S. residents.

Parts of the law -- also called HB 87 -- started to take effect on July 1 of last year. Other parts are tied up in a federal appeals court in Atlanta by a legal challenge brought by civil and immigrant rights groups.

The fate of one key provision, authorizing state and local police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects, could be determined within days. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of this month on the constitutionality of a similar Arizona law.

Proponents of Georgia's statute often cite a Pew Hispanic Center estimate that 325,000 illegal immigrants held jobs in Georgia in 2010. They say that is unacceptable, particularly since many citizens and legal residents are struggling in vain to find work. Georgia's unemployment rate stands at 8.9 percent, well above the national rate of 8.2 percent.

State Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, the author of HB 87, said he and others are monitoring the law's implementation and "will take legislative action if necessary to carry out our intent, which is to protect Georgia's taxpayers from the social and economic consequences of illegal immigration."

"I don't think anyone that worked on HB 87 believed there would be universal compliance in the relatively short time it has been in effect, given how sweeping and comprehensive the changes are in that law," Ramsey said.

Critics said state lawmakers sowed confusion by legislating around complex areas of federal immigration law. They argue those matters are best left to the federal government.

"The problems and confusion experienced by municipalities underscore the many problems with the new law: no training for municipalities, no funding for such training, no specificity within the law, and no clear goals or the will to achieve them," said Carolina Antonini, a local immigration attorney who teaches at Georgia State University.

Governments employ about 16 percent of Georgia's workers, meaning that the law's greatest impact will be achieved through compliance by private companies.

In all, more than 18,800 public and private employers in Georgia are enrolled to use ?E-Verify, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services records.

However, state Labor Department officials said they can't confirm that all businesses in Georgia are complying, because the state and federal government databases include different information, making cross-checking impossible.

For private companies, the law takes effect in stages. As of Jan. 1, businesses with 500 or more employees were supposed to start using E-Verify. On July 1, the requirement will extend to employers with 100 or more employees but fewer than 500. More than 5,600 such businesses are operating in Georgia, Labor Department records show.

Companies that have more than 10 workers and fewer than 100 must start using E-Verify by July 1 of next year. Smaller companies are exempt.

To be licensed to operate in a city or county, companies that are subject to the law must file sworn affidavits, saying that they are in compliance.

Some government officials are confused by the requirements. Sandy Springs, for example, sent a letter to 6,700 businesses this year, telling those with 10 or more employees they must provide the city with their E-Verify identification number. (Even after July 2013, companies with 10 workers will be exempt.) City officials said they would send a revised letter out in November.

"It is a new law," said Sharon Kraun, the city's spokeswoman, "and as with anything new, there is learning you gain as you move forward."

When it comes to governments, the law requires all agencies with more than one employee to file annual reports certifying that they use E-Verify. Agencies must also certify that contractors they hire use the system to check workers employed on building and road projects and "any other performance of labor for a public employer within this state under a contract or other bidding process."

Of the 2,324 local and state government agencies tracked by the state, 1,176 did not file reports by the Dec. 31 deadline, according to records obtained from the state Department of Audits and Accounts. There is no way to know how many of those who failed to file are exempt, but the results did not please state officials.

"I certainly would have hoped for a better response," said Russell Hinton, the state auditor.

City and county officials blamed the missing reports on unfamiliarity with the law, heavy workloads, staff turnover and other problems.

Among those that missed the reporting deadline is Sandy Springs, one of the state's largest cities with about 94,000 residents. The city filed its report this month after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contacted officials there about it. Sandy Springs is enrolled to use ?E-Verify, federal records show. When organizations enroll with E-Verify, they sign a document promising to use it to check newly hired employees.

"As a matter of practice, the city requires all contractors, and all companies submitting a bid for doing business with the city, to complete E-Verify documentation," Kraun, the city spokeswoman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Stewart County, home of the state's largest detention center for illegal immigrants, also did not file its report as required. A county official blamed the problem on staff turnover and said the report would be filed this week. The county is enrolled to use E-Verify.

Forty other local and state government organizations started the process of filing their reports but did not finish, including Chamblee and the DeKalb housing authority.

Chamblee City Manager Niles Ford said the city's report would be filed this month. The Chamblee Police Department is registered to use E-Verify.

An official at the DeKalb housing authority -- which is also enrolled to use E-Verify -- said her agency was looking into the matter.

Also, 620 agencies reported they had no public works contracts to report for the period of July 1 to Nov. 30.

Among the 488 agencies that did report using contractors, the thoroughness of the reports differed widely. For example, while Cobb officials reported doing business with more than 120 contractors, Fulton -- the state's most populous county -- identified just one. The county said it would submit a revised report.

"After re-reviewing the law and the report submitted to the state in December 2011," the county said in a prepared statement, "it appears that our initial interpretation of [the law] may not have been fully comprehensive of all types of services addressed in the law."

Georgia's law tasks the Department of Audits and Accounts and the Labor Department with doing audits to test whether government agencies and their contractors are actually using E-Verify -- but only if they receive funding to do the work. This month, officials at those agencies told the AJC they have not received any money. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, bemoaned the lack of audits.

"Obviously, they ought to be doing spot checks, audits, something," said Krikorian, whose Washington-based organization advocates for tighter immigration controls. "This is why a federal [nationwide] E-Verify requirement is necessary. The state measures just aren't going to be enough."

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Illegal immigration hard to measure

Identifying the precise impact of Georgia's year-old anti-illegal immigration law is impossible, partly because there are only estimates and no official counts of illegal immigrants living in the state. Further, no estimates exist yet for this year. Some points to consider:

The U.S. Homeland Security Department's most recent estimates of Georgia's illegal immigrant population (for 2010 and 2011) are based on census data gathered 10 years apart (in 2000 and 2010, respectively). That makes a year-to-year comparison invalid. The estimate for 2011 was 440,000.

Last year, the Pew Hispanic Center released a report estimating that Georgia was home to 425,000 illegal immigrants in 2010. The center has not yet released estimates for 2011.

Georgia school officials ?don't track the immigration status of their students. The number of Hispanic students statewide rose by 4,310 from last March to this March. That was about half of all enrollment growth.

For fiscal year 2011, Georgia's state prison system and local jails together received about $3 million from a federal program that partially reimburses states and counties for jailing illegal immigrants. No such information is available for 2012.

(c)2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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