Georgia’s immigration enforcement panel draws scrutiny

By Jeremy Redmon, Atlanta Journal Constitution, October 23, 2017

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“For the SPLC, pretty much everyone who opposes their political agenda is attacked as ‘racists’ or ‘haters,’ ” he said. “That smear campaign isn’t fooling many thinking Americans.”

When Georgia lawmakers passed a sweeping law cracking down on illegal immigration in 2011, they created a board to hold state and local government officials accountable.

Over the next six years the Immigration Enforcement Review Board received 20 complaints to investigate, according to documents obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act. And all but one came from the same person: D.A. King, a longtime anti-illegal immigration activist from Marietta. King, who has sparred with advocates for immigrants, said he helped develop the comprehensive state law that created the board, House Bill 87.

So far, only one of the 20 complaints the board has received has resulted in a sanction: Atlanta paid the board a $1,000 fine in August. Two other complaints resulted in Atlanta and DeKalb County taking corrective action. Four complaints have either been dismissed or were withdrawn. Thirteen — most of them dating to January and February of this year — are still pending.

Some observers say these results show the board should be scrapped, while others say it should be bolstered.

“Clearly, it is not working and it should be disbanded,” said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, who has frequently tangled with King and opposed him on immigration policy. “The state has no business in enforcing or regulating immigration. That’s the federal government’s job.”

In a lengthy response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, King, who has been critical of the board in the past, said he hopes it will have “more focused and timely hearings and action on valid complaints.”

“There would be far more complaints if everyday Georgians understood the law or that compliance with those laws is widely regarded as optional,” he wrote in his blog. “Most Georgians have no idea the IERB even exists.”

King is the president and founder of the Dustin Inman Society, a nonprofit organization the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “nativist extremist” group. The Dustin Inman Society — which reported $50,000 or less in gross receipts last year — solicits donations through another organization called US Inc., a Michigan-based educational foundation founded by John Tanton. The SPLC has called Tanton the “racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.” The SPLC, which operates an Immigrant Justice Project, fought Georgia’s HB 87 in federal court.

Tanton and US Inc. — which focuses on overhauling the immigration system and promoting English as this nation’s common language — did not respond to requests for comment. King pushed back against the criticism of Tanton and the Dustin Inman Society, calling the SPLC “discredited and agenda-driven.”

“For the SPLC, pretty much everyone who opposes their political agenda is attacked as ‘racists’ or ‘haters,’ ” he said. “That smear campaign isn’t fooling many thinking Americans.”

Heidi Beirich, who directs the SPLC’s efforts tracking hate groups and extremists, said she was going to take a new look at the Dustin Inman Society after learning from the AJC about its ties to US Inc.

“Hearing about this US Inc. connection, I think we at the SPLC have to take a serious look at King’s outfit as possibly a hate group,” Beirich said, “because there is no one more extreme than John Tanton and his crew on immigration in the United States.”

King told Kennesaw Patch in 2011 that he helped write HB 87. Asked about that, King told the AJC that he was consulted when the bill was being drafted and was invited to testify about it in the Legislature’s committee process as an expert witness.

The author of the bill — former Republican state Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City — said in email only that King is a “staunch advocate for enforcement of immigration laws” who supported HB 87. The board’s work so far, Ramsey added, “hopefully means the citizenry is generally satisfied with how the state and local governments are complying with state law.”

The seven-member board — made up of appointees by Georgia’s governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — is designed to react to complaints from the public focusing on violations of immigration-related state laws. The board members serve two-year terms and are not paid for their work, though they can be reimbursed for investigative-related expenses. Since 2011, the state has appropriated $127,650 for the board’s efforts. The panel has spent $3,262 of that on hearing transcripts and postage, returning $104,387 to the state.

In addition to holding hearings, the board is authorized to issue subpoenas and place witnesses under oath. It can also take “remedial action,” issue fines ranging between $1,000 and $5,000, and recommend government agencies be stripped of state funding. Complaints may be submitted to the board by state residents who are registered voters.

Since 2012, King has kept the board busy, filing complaints against state agencies; the cities of Atlanta, Brookhaven and Columbus; DeKalb County; the Marietta school system; Georgia Southern University; and the school boards in Bibb, Bulloch, Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Glynn, Hall and Whitfield counties. Most of his complaints focus on access to adult education and are still pending.

In July 2012, he alleged that DeKalb violated state law by not using the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, or SAVE, to ensure people applying for public benefits are legally in the U.S. The board voted to fine the county $5,000, but it dismissed that fine after the county assured the board it would use SAVE as required.

In August of last year, King alleged that Atlanta did not use SAVE while renewing the Atlanta Historical Society’s nonprofit business license. The city paid a $1,000 fine a year later. King first set his sights on the city in 2012, when he accused Atlanta of violating state law by allowing people to use Mexican matricula consular ID cards in city government transactions. The board dismissed that complaint after the City Council repealed an ordinance at the heart of the dispute.

King said the board “is nothing close to what I would have asked for if I had that ability.” And he accused Georgia associations that represent city and county officials of pushing for the creation of the board as a way to shield their members.

Those associations said they view the board as a better alternative to what was in an early draft of HB 87: a provision that would have allowed state residents to sue cities and counties for violations in court and to recoup their legal costs if their lawsuits were successful.

“The bill’s original language authorized aggrieved parties to sue and have their complaints, even meritless ones, litigated in courts of law,” Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said in a prepared statement. “Furthermore, and what should be concerning, is the legislation had no means by which counties could recoup attorney’s fees and legal costs for meritless suits.”

Rusi Patel, senior associate general counsel at the Georgia Municipal Association, offered a similar view.

“It wasn’t about not getting sanctioned, it was about lowering costs and providing an avenue both for the local governments and for the citizens,” he said.

The board’s newly elected chairman says he wants to broaden the panel’s exposure — and perhaps inspire more people other than King to file complaints — by moving its meetings throughout the state. He also wants to speed up the process for resolving complaints, which can take months.

“We can’t be proactive on initiating complaints,” Board Chairman Shawn Hanley said, “but we can certainly be proactive letting the public know all around the state who we are and what we do and actually even have some board meetings in other towns.”

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