Georgia Lawmakers Advance Bills Targeting Immigrant-Friendly Policies

Jason Riley, father of slain nursing student Laken Riley, speaks at the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Jason Riley, father of slain nursing student Laken Riley, speaks at the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Senate on Thursday pushed through bills aimed at forcing local governments to help deport immigrants instead of sheltering them, part of a continuing political response to the killing of a nursing student on the University of Georgia campus allegedly by a Venezuelan man.

The Senate voted 34-18 for House Bill 301, which would punish cities and counties that supporters say are illegally harboring immigrants in the country without permission by cutting off most state aid to the local government and removing elected officials from office. Senators also voted 34-19 for House Bill 1105, which is aimed at compelling jailers to check the immigration status of inmates. Majority Republicans all voted in favor and minority Democrats all voted against.

“This is a public safety issue, make no mistake, and it deals with criminals," said state Sen. John Albers, a Roswell Republican.

The measures return to the House for more debate.

Studies show immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. But Republicans have targeted those in jail since Jose Ibarra was arrested last month on murder and assault charges in the death of 22-year-old Laken Riley. Immigration authorities say Ibarra, 26, unlawfully crossed into the United States in 2022. It is unclear whether he has applied for asylum.

Riley was a nursing student at Augusta University’s Athens campus. She was found dead Feb. 22 after a roommate reported she didn’t return from a morning run in a wooded area.

Thursday's votes came hours after a Senate committee passed two less severe bills, raising questions about what a final package on immigration will ultimately look like.

Jason Riley, the student's father, said so-called sanctuary policies in the University of Georgia’s hometown of Athens-Clarke County “led to the murder of my daughter" in a speech to senators on Wednesday. Athens-Clarke Mayor Kelly Girtz has denied that the consolidated city-county is violating a 2009 state law against sanctuary policies.

Democrats and other opponents say the measures are unneeded and will lead to racial profiling by police against Latinos.

"It’s just a false narrative that elected officials are pushing that there are sanctuary cities in the state of Georgia.” said Geovani Serrano, a member of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights who lobbied against the bills at the Capitol.

House Bill 301 would let any Georgia resident sue, asking a judge to declare an agency was violating the 2009 law. If a judge agrees, the state would cut off state aid and federal aid it controls, except for a short list of emergency and health services. For example, a county or city would get no state money for building and maintaining roads.

The bill also provides for ousting elected officials if cities or counties adopt a sanctuary policy. The bill lets any Georgia resident complain to the Board of Community Affairs. The board would recommend to the governor whether to suspend the official. The governor could then remove the official and appoint a replacement.

Officials could petition to be reinstated, but only if they could show that their service would improve the government's ability to comply with the anti-sanctuary law.

House Bill 1105 would set new requirements for how jail officials should check with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to determine whether people are known to be in the country illegally. The bill would make officials who “knowingly and willfully” fail to check immigration status guilty of a misdemeanor that the attorney general could prosecute. The bill would also deny state funding to local governments that don’t cooperate.

“There’s no good reason why we should not be checking someone’s status if we suspect they’re in this country illegally," Albers said.

Democrats warn the rules would cause people to be detained for long periods, would separate parents born elsewhere from U.S.-born children and spark distrust of police in immigrant communities. Albers argued it would have little effect, saying only a few disobedient sheriffs aren't already complying.

The requirement to help ICE would require jails to apply for what is known as a 287(g) agreement to let local officers enforce immigration law. It’s unclear how many would be accepted because President Joe Biden’s administration has de-emphasized the program. The program doesn’t empower local law enforcement to make immigration-specific arrests outside a jail.

Albers said that even with cooperation, there is no guarantee ICE would pick up prisoners and start deportation efforts. He claimed ICE is picking up a much smaller share of immigrants under the Biden administration than previously.