The anti-immigrant police-state racism that began haunting immigrant communities in Arizona last year has arrived in Georgia – and it’s rotting the Peach State, both figuratively and literally.
A last-minute partial injunction by a federal judge has helped subdue the ghost of the new Jim Crow summoned by right-wing Governor Nathan Deal in March with the passage of House Bill 87 (HB 87), a law that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and anyone who supports them. Still, many draconian parts of the law, scheduled to take effect on Friday, were not blocked and the state’s attorney general has already announced plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.
The impact of HB 87 has already been sudden and devastating. An exodus of families from the state has produced a labor shortage for agribusiness. And the governor’s solution to that problem is to resurrect the ghost of the old Jim Crow; Deal has been working with the Georgia Department of Corrections to employ the forced labor of parolees to fill the gap left by immigrant workers fleeing the state.
While Judge Thomas Thrash’s temporary injunction on Monday was welcomed news for activists opposed to the law, immigrant rights supporters will be pressing ahead as planned this weekend with a march in Atlanta that organizers hope will attract tens of thousands of protesters. The action on Saturday, spearheaded by the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), has been dubbed “A Day of Mass Resistance to HB 87.” Activists are also calling for a day of non-compliance to resist HB 87 when it takes effect this week. Immigrants and activists are encouraged to stay home from the workplace and stores, observing a “day without immigrants and allies” to demonstrate immigrants’ value to Georgia’s economy.
In addition to GLAHR, the mobilization is being organized by more than 60 local and national immigrant rights organizations. Groups like the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), Somos Georgia, and Turning the Tide Campaign are supporting the July 2 march, along with dozens of other faith, Latino/a, African American, labor, LGBTQ, and student groups.
Although activists were hoping that a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would completely block HB 87 on the grounds that it infringes on the federal government’s authority to enforce immigration law and encourages racial profiling, organizers say the need for mobilizing in the streets remains urgent.
“We’re still marching because victories are not won in the courts alone,” NDLON said in a statement following the ruling.
“The judge’s temporary injunction of parts of the law is a step in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go,” added Marisa Franco, an NDLON organizer helping to build Saturday’s mobilization.
“HB 87 represents a deeper politics of exclusion and unjust immigration policies that’s becoming a domestic human rights crisis,” she said. “Over the last three years, over a million people have been deported. The solution isn’t separating families; it’s separating ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and local police, and creating pathways out of the shadows for Americans in waiting.”
In its statement, NDLON pointed to abuses that have existed long before the passage of HB 87.
“The programs that were terrorizing us before HB 87 came along, 287(g) and Secure Communities are still in place and the Governor is appealing the judge's ruling.”
Agreements like 287(g) and Secure Communities continue to be enforced in Georgia. The 287(g) program deputizes local officials to enforce federal immigration laws and Secure Communities allows local and state authorities to compare the fingerprints of anyone they arrest with FBI data to check for immigration violations – purportedly to zero-in on undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
While innocuous-sounding, Secure Communities in practice has failed to distinguish between minor offenders and serious criminals and has made undocumented crime victims and witnesses reluctant to report crimes out of fear of being arrested and deported. Illinois terminated its Secure Communities program after finding that only a small minority of those targeted and deported under the fingerprint-sharing agreement had ever been convicted of a serious crime.
Georgia’s new anti-immigrant law took last year’s SB 1070 law in Arizona as its inspiration and added a few more doses of bigotry for good measure.
In its original form, HB 87 would criminalize the undocumented by requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally and would allow law enforcement to hand over the undocumented to federal authorities. The original law would also criminalize anyone who transports undocumented immigrants.
While those parts of the law are on hold for now, the provisions that remain intact require businesses and government agencies to check the status of job applicants using the federal E-Verify database, make it a felony to use false documentation when applying for a job, and empower citizens to sue local and state officials for not enforcing state immigration laws.
Pressure exerted by immigrant rights activists no doubt helped push the court to block the most egregious parts of HB 87 earlier this week. Even Deal’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue, condemned the law as racist in a rare statement of compassion from the former Republican governor.
“I wanted Georgia to be known as a state that was friendly and welcoming to people,” Perdue said. “And while I absolutely believe in the rule of law and that people should be here legally, I think we should be hospitable and kind and compassionate.” He added that the law would create “a real fear and perception that Georgia is probably not a state to be seen in if you’re of a different color.”
Instead of tackling Georgia’s unemployment, cracking down on corporate tax cheats, and raising its low corporate tax rate, Governor Deal campaigned on a promise to crack down on undocumented immigrants who he says are overburdening the state with medical and prison costs. After hearing this argument made by Georgia officials in court last week, Judge Thrash asked how throwing more immigrants in jail would reduce costs.
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In truth, the concern over cutting costs has always been a pretext for bigotry. Politicians like Deal are using the undocumented as scapegoats to turn the public’s attention away from the real source of Georgia’s budgetary strains: corporate welfare and low taxes for the rich.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, an estimated 425,000 undocumented immigrants live in Georgia and the state’s Latino population has doubled over the past decade. Yet some of the same politicians in Georgia who have championed free trade agreements like NAFTA that have destroyed agricultural jobs in Latin America are also the first to demonize the refugees of such trade deals when they come looking for work in their state – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a prime example of this merciless contradiction.
Meanwhile, the flight of immigrant families out of Georgia in anticipation of a crackdown with the enforcement of HB 87 has precipitated a labor shortage in the state’s agricultural sector. A recent Georgia Department of Agriculture investigation found that an estimated shortfall of 11,000 workers is producing a crisis as the harvest season begins. The primary crop in need of labor for harvesting is cotton, according to the investigation.
The governor’s racist response to this crisis brought on by HB 87 is to use the forced labor of unemployed people on probation to fill these thousands of jobs, 60 percent of which pay less than $11 an hour. Only a third of the jobs – which entail long hours – offer some form of workers’ compensation in an industry that has high rates of heat stroke. Sixty percent of the 26,000 Georgians on parole are considered “non-white,” according the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.
With this “solution,” Deal has raised the specter of cotton being picked by un-free Black workers in a region still haunted by the history of chattel slavery.
After the judge heard arguments last weekend on the ACLU lawsuit, civil liberties advocates already felt confident that their case had been received by a sympathetic court.
Judge Thrash pointed out that under HB 87 an 18-year-old U.S. citizen who gets pulled over while driving an undocumented parent would be charged as a criminal under the new law. Thrash also asked Georgian offices defending the law, “What’s going to happen on July 1 to people associated with illegal aliens? They’re supposed to go somewhere else with their husbands, wives, and children…even if they’re citizens?”
Activists in Georgia and beyond have been mounting a campaign to stop the enshrinement of anti-immigrant racism into law and, while a partial victory was delivered in the courts on Monday, immigrant rights supporters will continue to fight for justice in the streets.
“Tens of thousands will march in Atlanta to celebrate the organizing and growing momentum to overturn HB 87 and other policies holding back our country and communities,” said Franco.
“Communities will continue to come together to defend their right to remain and overturn the policies of hate in Georgia – they'll stand with communities across the country to demand an end to ICE Access programs and will continue to fight HB 87 in the courts.”
Beyond this weekend, NDLON and Somos Georgia have called for an ongoing “Travel, Tourism, and Convention Boycott” of Georgia as a means of resisting the state’s Arizona copycat legislation.
The human rights struggle in Georgia comes at a time when states across the country are pushing harsh anti-immigrant laws that mirror Arizona’s onslaught last year. To date, about 30 states are considering laws that would further terrorize families by cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
Most recently Alabama passed an anti-immigrant law that rivals Arizona’s SB 1070. Alabama’s HB 56 – which the Southern Poverty Law Center referred to it as the harshest law of its kind to be enacted by any state – criminalizes every area of life for immigrants, making it illegal for the undocumented to work, attend school, rent housing, and get a ride. Alabama’s law calls for public schools to report students who cannot prove their citizenship so that they can be deported.
As the ACLU prepares to file suit against Alabama’s horrific assault on immigrant families, other legal challenges have blocked most of SB 1070 in Arizona, along with other anti-immigrant laws in Utah and Indiana. And in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, the national tide of union-busting has swept in anti-immigrant measures along with it.
Without a doubt, the immigrant rights struggle is on the defensive as it confronts a spate of racist legislation in states across the country. The movement to pass the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship for students attending college or joining the military, may be an exception. This week the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the 10-year-old legislation, and last month the state of Maryland passed its own version of the DREAM Act that grants in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.
Since the latest witch hunt of racist laws against immigrants and people of color began last year in Arizona, movements on the ground, organized by immigrants and activist supporters, have helped put the breaks on the worst attacks on the rights and dignity of workers and their families. The Obama administration’s lip service on immigrant rights on the one hand and its escalation of deportations on the other makes it clear that the struggle for human rights and justice for the undocumented will ultimately be won in the streets – and Georgia is no different.
While budget cuts are being imposed ruthlessly around the country, those who are targeting workers and the poor are relying on a cast of scapegoats while the real culprits who have bankrupted public coffers are the Wall Street barons and their water carriers in Washington.
The march this weekend in Georgia represents a pivotal step in turning the tide against anti-immigrant racism and fighting for a society in which no human being is illegal.