José Gómez is seeing fewer people in his gym in Dalton, Ga. Not because folks aren’t as interested in staying healthy, he says, but because they’re interested in staying out of jail.
New immigration laws in Georgia — among the toughest in the nation — are scaring families with illegal immigrants out of the state, he says.
“I’ve known of at least 20 families that have left just because of these laws,” he said.
The fear and flight is not just in Georgia. Tougher immigration laws and more enforcement activity, combined with a slowing economy, are causing many immigrant families to pack their bags and head to other states or back to their native countries, area business owners and residents said.
Advocates of stricter controls on illegal immigrants complain that some laws still aren’t being fully enforced. But both sides of the immigration battle agree that undocumented workers are facing a variety of new hurdles.
n Georgia’s Security and Immigration Compliance Act, adopted in 2006 and implemented on July 1, 2007, requires verification of citizenship or legal alien status for any person to receive a government benefit in Georgia or to keep a new job by a public agency or state contractor.
n Although Tennessee has no state immigration controls similar to Georgia, a growing number of employers in Tennessee and other states are voluntarily joining the federal E-Verify program to check the legal status of new workers. A handful of police agencies in Tennessee also are participating in another federal program to check the immigration status of people they arrest.
n The federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency is checking more employers for illegal immigrant workers. In April, for instance, ICE arrested 100 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Chattanooga. Since then, federal and local authorities have recently made several arrests of undocumented workers in area neighborhoods.
The Rev. Mike Feely with the St. Andrews Center said the Hispanic community is definitely scared.
“There’s a heightened sense of awareness,” he said. “This has happened and the world doesn’t seem the same anymore.”
Bernardo Olvera, who owns a photo studio in Dalton, said while some immigrants decide to stay and look for employment opportunities in Chattanooga and Ooltewah, a large percentage have left to other states such as Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina.
“I know of a large percentage of people who have come to my studio to pick up some photos because they say they are leaving. I don’t know if that was the original intention of the authorities,” he said.
Across the South, the number of illegal immigrants deported from the United States has more than tripled in the past five years, rising more than five times as fast as the nation as a whole, according to Immigration and Custom Enforcement figures.
Nationwide, the number of people deported from October through February of fiscal 2008 totaled 113,683, or nearly 45 percent more than the same period a year ago. By comparison in the same period, deportations from the Atlanta office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement jumped from 1,546 in 2005 to 5,186 this year.
“The climate is certainly much different than in the past,” said Robert Divine, an immigration lawyer in Chattanooga. “We’re seeing more enforcement activity as the administration tries to demonstrate that the government has the will and ability to enforce the law.”
The increased enforcement against illegal immigrants comes as unemployment in the region is at the highest level in more than 15 years in Georgia and at a 21-year high in Tennessee. Immigrants often are among the last hired and the first fired in an economic downturn, and the new restrictions are making it harder for illegal immigrants to find or keep their jobs, officials said.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the general effects of Georgia’s tougher immigration laws have been creating a lot of confusion and fear.
“The word-of-mouth is spreading that Georgia is an unwelcoming place, and that’s not necessarily something we want to portray our state as,” he said.
But state Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, said the new laws he helped sponsor are having their desired effect.
“We’re definitely seeing a downturn in the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia both because of the economy and some of these new rules,” he said. “Georgia has certainly earned a reputation that it is less friendly to illegal immigration than other areas and that was our goal. We want illegal immigrants to know that this is not the place for them.”
Sen. Douglas was a key sponsor of new immigration enforcement law adopted by Georgia lawmakers two years ago. The Georgia law requires state and local governments to verify the citizenship of any government contractor or recipient of government benefits administered by a state agency such as nonemergency health care. The new law also requires state law enforcement agencies to check the legal status of those charged with a felony or a DUI.
SB 529: Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act
Effective July 1, 2007
* Requires that jail personnel check the legal status of those charged with a felony or DUI and notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement if the individual is not legally in the United States.
* Requires that entities verify legal U.S. residence for local, state or federal benefits administered by a state agencies, with some exceptions such as prenatal and emergency care.
* Requires that companies contracted with state agencies use the E-Verify program for newly hired employees to verify lawful employment in the country.
* Specifies that undocumented employee compensation more than $600 a year may not be used as an allowable business expense.
* Requires 6 percent state withholding tax for all nonresident aliens.
* Authorizes the Department of Public Safety to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning the enforcement of immigration laws.
Source: Georgia’s State Legislature
* Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act provides for the authorization of trained state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law.
* In Georgia, the Georgia Department of Public Safety and the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office are among the four entities that participate in the program.
* In Tennessee, the Tennessee Department of Safety and the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in Nashville are part of the program.
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Web site
* A voluntary Internet-based program established to allow employers to electronically verify workers’ employment eligibility with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.
* E-Verify allows participating employers to electronically compare employee information taken from the Form I-9 (the paper-based employment eligibility verification form used for all new hires) against more than 425 million records in Social Security Administration’s database and more than 60 million records in Department of Homeland Security’s immigration databases.
* Results are returned within seconds.
* Those employees whose work authorization cannot be instantly verified are given the opportunity to work with the Social Security Administration or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to confirm their work authorization.
* Naturalized citizens who haven’t updated their records with the Social Security Administration are the largest category of work-authorized persons who initially face a mismatch in E-Verify.
* More than 66,000 employers, representing close to 259,000 worksites, currently are signed up to use the E-Verify program, and the number of registered employers is growing by more than 1,000 per week.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site
Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program
* An inter-governmental information sharing initiative to help benefit granting agency workers determine a non-citizen applicant’s immigration status, ensuring that only entitled non-citizen applicants receive federal, state, or local public benefits and licenses.
* A rate of $0.50 applies to each request submitted electronically, with an additional $0.50 charge if the case is referred for additional verification. A rate of $2 applies to each initial manual verification request submitted via the paper-based Form G-845, Document Verification Request.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site
A separate Georgia law that went into effect July 1 also requires legal status verification for those convicted of driving without a license or a revoked license. If the person is not legally in the country, officials must notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At the federal level, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is offering a new enforcement option to local police, a computer system — called 287(g) — that allows access to multiple databases to check the legal residency status of a person.
The Tennessee Department of Public Safety, Nashville’s Davidson County Sheriff’s Department and four Georgia sheriff departments, including Whitfield County in Dalton, have trained officers on the federal verification system. They are among 59 enforcement agencies that have collectively trained nearly 800 local officers nationwide to enforce immigration laws. The $42 million training program this year, up from $15 million in fiscal 2007, has helped identify more than 62,000 people with possible immigration violations in the past two years, according to government figures.
The Whitfield County Sheriff’s Department started working with the system in May to screen those arrested on other charges who cannot provide proof of legal residence or U.S. citizenship. After a few months of operation, Whitfield Sheriff Scott Chitwood calls the situation a “win-win.”
Prior to the program, Sheriff Chitwood said his department would call the ICE office in Atlanta to check on the status anyone arrested who couldn’t provide documentation. Under the new federal program, deputies are sworn federal officers who can enforce immigration rules, Sheriff Chitwood said.
“Our officers now have the ability to hold someone at the jail and basically start the deportation process,” he said. “So what 287(g) has done is put six federal officers in the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Department.”
Lt. Wesley Lynch, a supervising officer with 287(g) training at the Whitfield Jail, said he thinks that public awareness of the program has caused a “dramatic decrease in our jail population and a noticeable decrease in the number of inmates arrested with no Social Security number.”
Legal fears and enforcement
Critics of the 287(g) program argue that what was sold as a program to catch and deport criminal illegal immigrants has spiraled out of control and people are being deported for traffic violations in some communities such as Nashville.
“Families are deciding not to drive together in the same car because of fear no one will be able to take care of their children in case they are stopped,” said Catalina Nieto, public awareness coordinator with the Tennessee Immigrants and Refugees Rights Coalition.
She said that in Davidson County more than 80 percent of those processed under 287(g) were only charged with misdemeanors.
“People in our community are living in fear, which affects all of us because that means people not reporting crimes or being easy target of crimes,” she added.
But proponents of tougher immigration enforcement contend that many local governments are not following all parts of the Georgia law more than two years after it was passed.
Among Georgia’s 159 counties, only Whitfield, Hall, Cobb and Gwinnett counties have police agencies participating in the federal 287(g) program, Mr. King said.
Among 694 cities and counties in Georgia, only 10 were enrolled in June in the federal program that verifies the legal status of non U.S. citizens for benefits — known as the Systematic Alien Verification of Entitlement (SAVE) program, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.
“The law clearly says that, before any public benefit may be offered to any legal alien living in Georgia, they must use the SAVE program,” said D.A. King, an immigration control advocate who lives in Marietta, Ga. “But very few agencies are even signed up for the program two years after it was adopted and a year after these new rules went into effect.”
Sen. Douglas, who said the Georgia law “overall has been very positive,” also wants better enforcement of the rules by Georgia cities and counties.
“Very few cities and counties have complied fully with Georgia law and I am preparing now a letter to the city and county associations in Georgia, reminding them that they need to get their members to come into compliance with the law or the Legislature may take more steps to make sure the law is enforced,” he said.
Sen. Douglas said he may introduce new legislation if cities and counties don’t comply with the current law.
The Southeast has been a magnet for many immigrants in recent years.
Between 2000 and 2006, the foreign-born population in Georgia changed from 577,273 to 859,590, a rise of 49 percent and representing 9.2 percent of the total population, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington, D.C.-think tank that analyses the movement of people worldwide.
In Tennessee, the foreign-born population increased from 159,004 to 236,516 between 2000 and 2006, a 48.7 percent increase and 3.9 percent of the state’s total population.
But over time, tougher immigration enforcement definitely slows down immigration growth, said University of Georgia demographer Dr. Douglas Bachtel.
“Once they lose their job, they have to move to other places, particularly if they are illegal, because they won’t be able to get unemployment compensation,” he said. “They might stay for a while because their friends and family will take care of them, but that can’t last long.”
Luis Arevalo and his wife, Rebeca Garcia, are among those illegal immigrants in the area debating whether it’s better to stay in Dalton and hope things will get better or look elsewhere for opportunities.
Ms. Garcia lost her job at a carpet factory five months ago when her bosses discovered she was in the country illegally. A month after that, she gave birth to her second son, Jefferson.
“It has been extremely hard finding another job because all the companies are being very cautious in verifying the documents of who they hire,” the Guatemalan native said in Spanish.
Ms. Garcia and her husband said they have talked about the possibility of returning to Guatemala or perhaps moving to a different state where immigration laws are not as tough. But Mr. Arevalo said he has built his life in Dalton and doesn’t want to leave.
“I’ve been here for seven years. I’ve built friendships, a family, I don’t want to go,” the 25-year-old said in Spanish.