Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2006, Georgia approved what many observers at the time considered the nation's most stringent law to crack down on illegal immigrants. The legislation allowed the state to audit any employer doing business with state or local government to ensure that its workers had proper documentation. Since then, how many employers has the state audited? Zero.
The rule sounded tough, but the legislature never appropriated any money for audits. With Arizona having recently approved a new immigration law that is considered the toughest in the country, Georgia's story is a reminder that when it comes to immigration enforcement, states' reach often exceeds their grasp. Arizona's new law has been celebrated and reviled since Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law in April, and Georgia's experience suggests both responses might be overreactions.
The Georgia legislation, SB 529, had a variety of provisions beyond the rules on audits. But the overall story is the same. "There was not much substance or enforcement in Senate Bill 529 in its final passage," says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "It was more to send a message that Georgia wanted to be at the forefront of states trying to regulate immigration."
Arizona's law, of course, is quite different than Georgia's. In Arizona, the provision drawing the most attention would require law enforcement to query the immigration status of anyone they have a "reasonable suspicion" is an illegal immigrant.
Still, the lesson from Georgia might well apply to Arizona. No state effort to crack down on illegal immigration will do very much unless legislators, bureaucrats and local law enforcement officers stay committed to it. In Arizona, where many police chiefs oppose the new law, it's quite possible that officers won't be suspecting residents are illegal immigrants very often. Arizona's measure also could end up like an Oklahoma immigration law that, in its day, was another contender for the "nation's toughest" title. Key provisions of that measure, approved in 2007, have been blocked in court.
But Gonzalez makes another point. Though the actual provisions of Georgia's legislation didn't do very much, the bill's passage shaped what happened next. Chip Rogers, the bill's legislative champion, saw his political fortunes rise. Today he's majority leader of the Georgia Senate. Immigration became a perennial topic for debate in the Georgia Legislature, with some additional measures passing and others failing. In some places in Georgia, tensions between law enforcement and immigrants are high.
In this way, Arizona almost certainly is like Georgia. Whether the law ever is implemented, the political aftershocks of Arizona's foray into immigration enforcement will be felt for years to come.