By Greg Bluestein, Jeremy Redmon
Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature created the Immigration Enforcement Review Board eight years ago to hold local and state officials accountable, complaining the federal government had failed to secure the nation's borders.
Now the state is disbanding the panel, even as President Donald Trump is declaring a national emergency on the southwest border, amid complaints from both civil rights groups and anti-illegal immigration advocates who united to call for it to be dissolved.
So unpopular was the program that Georgia lawmakers unanimously voted on a measure earlier this year to dissolve it and Gov. Brian Kemp, who campaigned on a promise to round up illegal immigrants in his pickup truck, signed it into law without a public statement.
The panel's failures highlight the challenge for state Republicans who call for stricter enforcement of federal immigration rules. Kemp, in particular, has said he will keep his promise to target illegal immigration, but has not outlined precisely how he will do so.
The Immigration Enforcement Review Board was empowered to probe complaints from the public about violations of immigration-related state laws. Its members, appointed by Georgia's top politicians, could issue subpoenas, place witnesses under oath and administer fines.
In practice, though, the panel became a political tool for office-seekers and a hotbed of infighting that was little used by citizens. Of the 20 complaints the board received in its first six years, all but one came from D.A. King, the well-known anti-illegal immigration activist.
Even King wasn't sorry to see the board shut down. In an interview, he said the panel "refused to obey its own rules" by dismissing his complaints without allowing him a chance to present his arguments.
"It was a parody of a kangaroo court that had corrupt leadership," he said, "and I'm thrilled to see it go."
In a rare display of agreement, immigrant rights advocates agreed with his assessment. Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South, which provides legal support for unauthorized immigrants, called the demise of the board a "significant victory."
"Their mere existence scared localities with scarce resources from taking steps to be welcoming toward immigrant communities," she said. "This development is the result of years of work by communities to expose the problems with this body as well as brave localities, specifically the city of Decatur, standing up and fighting back."
The board's most recent chairman, James Balli, could not immediately be reached Monday. Former Republican state Rep. Matt Ramsey, who sponsored the legislation that created the board, declined to comment.
The board was included in a wide-ranging illegal immigration crackdown passed in 2011 that imposed new requirements on many businesses to ensure new hires are eligible to work in the U.S. and gave police officers authority to investigate the immigration status of some suspects.
The seven-member panel was designed to investigate complaints about local and state government officials not enforcing state immigration-related laws. But it received few complaints over the years, and rarely imposed fines.
Its demise was hastened last year by then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a candidate for governor who filed a complaint shortly before the GOP primary alleging that the city of Decatur was creating sanctuaries for criminals.
The city's officials accused Cagle of trying to use the board to pander to conservatives with a baseless claim, noting that the Republican quickly invoked his fight against the liberal bastion of Decatur in digital ads and stump speeches.
Cagle failed to show up at a hearing on the complaint, and at another meeting weeks later, a board member challenged a Decatur attorney to "talk to me out in the hall" in a bizarre and testy confrontation.
The city got the last word by filing a lawsuit alleging the board was violating the state's transparency laws. The board ultimately settled with the city, agreeing to make its proceedings more public and pay Decatur $12,000 in attorney fees and other costs.
The fallout left the board without its chairman and a longtime board member, who both resigned after Decatur's attorney questioned whether they had overstayed their term in office.
"The board ran its course. Having a single person file 95% of the complaints the board received shows it just wasn't set up right from the start," said Shawn Hanley, a former chair of the panel. "It was probably the right time to disband the board and find better ways to help Georgia cities and counties with compliance."
Lawmakers, meanwhile, had grown tired of the fighting. The language to eliminate the panel was slipped into House Bill 553, a 13-page proposal originally filed to make changes to a little-known state commission.
State Rep. Katie Dempsey, the Rome Republican who introduced the measure, said the board was not "functioning as originally intended." Her co-sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, put a finer point on it.
"I'm very happy to see it kaput. It was costing the state money. It was accomplishing no purpose," said Oliver. "I'm delighted it's gone. It wasn't doing anything but costing taxpayers' money."
(c)2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)