Georgia’s copycat attack on immigrants

April 21, 2011

The passage of Georgia's version of the notorious anti-immigrant SB 1070 law in Arizona is a transparent attempt to scapegoat the vulnerable, reports Rebekah Ward.

THE GEORGIA state legislature stepped backwards in time on April 14, officially sanctioning the racial profiling of immigrants by law enforcement with the passage of HB 87.

HB 87 would not have looked out of place among the 27 Jim Crow laws that Georgia has enacted during its long history of racist treatment of African Americans. The new law contains a "show me your papers" provision that encourages police to check people's immigration status in the course of investigating a possible offense, including traffic offenses.

In case anyone was in doubt about the racist nature of this bill, state Sen. Renee Unterman mentioned during the debate that she knew local law enforcement cooperation with immigration was working well in Georgia. Her evidence? "I see fewer foreigners driving around," she explained. In other words, sufficient grounds for probable cause in Georgia is now "driving while brown."

Georgia has become the first of 13 states considering legislation modeled on Arizona's infamous SB 1070 to actually pass such copycat legislation. SB 1070 was signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010, but a federal judge issued an injunction against the law's most vicious provisions one day before its implementation.

A "people's solidarity gathering" against the passage of Georgia's anti-immigrant hate bill
A "people's solidarity gathering" against the passage of Georgia's anti-immigrant hate bill

The Federation for American Immigration Reform and other national anti-immigrant groups have been campaigning for passage of the Georgia law and others like it elsewhere across the country, according to the New York Times. These big-money conservative forces are hoping to use immigration as an issue to energize their base and sweep more Republicans into office.

But there is no shortage of local culprits--in government as well as the private sector.

Georgia has four immigration detention facilities, three of which are operated by private prison corporations. Those beds must be filled in order to siphon the maximum quantity of taxpayer dollars into their corporate coffers. HB 87 will thus augment the already existing collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police in four Georgia counties working under the federal 287(g) program, which gives local cops new powers to terrify and incarcerate undocumented immigrants--to the delight of the for-profit detention centers.

But not all of the business community is happy with this bill. The original versions of this legislation included a strict requirement that private employers in Georgia use the federal E-Verify system to determine work eligibility of new hires. This notoriously flawed federal program checks the Social Security number filed for each worker against a database of identities.

Employers, especially in construction, restaurant and agribusiness, revolted against this provision. Eventually, the E-Verify requirements were reduced slightly, and agribusiness was exempted. This section of Georgia business relies on underpaid, overworked undocumented immigrants to maintain their large profit margins.

The fissure between different wings of business reveals the many ways that undocumented workers are exploited in Georgia--simultaneously used as a cheap source of labor, demonized by politicians as a scapegoat for economic problems, and locked up by the prison-industrial complex.

But just in case there are too few super-exploited workers to suit the needs of Georgia's agribusinesses after passage of HB 87, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black announced that he is looking into establishing a state-based guest worker program.

NATHAN DEAL, Georgia's newly elected governor, ran as an anti-immigrant fiscal conservative in the 2010 election. Like many Republicans, he rode a mass voter abstention into office last fall in a "red" state that almost went to Barack Obama in 2008.

In one of his campaign advertisements, he declared:

Liberals won't like it when I empower local law enforcement to help deport illegal aliens, but it must be done...Illegal aliens are costing Georgia taxpayers over a billion dollars every year. I'm not worried about the liberals; my concern is you.

Unsurprisingly, Deal has promised to sign HB 87 in the next few weeks.

In the context of persistent high unemployment, it's not surprising that politicians are looking to pin the blame on immigrants instead of the corporate titans in the banking and real estate industries that touched off the crisis--and to focus anger on some of the most vulnerable people in society instead of the super-rich and corporations that have managed to shift the tax burden onto the working class.

Sen. Unterman's testimony that constituents in her district are angry about overcrowded emergency rooms due to "illegal immigration" is a perfect example of this.

Of course, it's politicians, not immigrants, who have carried out sweeping cuts to Georgia's budget. Cuts to education, pre-K programs, subsidized housing, assistance for mothers with young children--all of this has been slashed. And if Georgia politicians can get away with explaining the scarcity of services by blaming the undocumented, they will be able to continue their slash-and-burn assault on the budget.

What's more, Arizona's SB 1070 began devastating communities of undocumented workers even before its passage, as people fled the state in anticipation of harassment by citizens and police alike. In 2006, the Georgia town of Stillmore, population 1,000, witnessed a similar phenomenon when ICE carried out a raid on a chicken-processing plant that was the area's main employer with 900 workers, about 700 of whom were Mexican immigrants.

On Labor Day in 2006, armed ICE agents descended on the plant and a nearby trailer park where many workers lived with their families. The agents rounded up, handcuffed and transported about 120 immigrants to far-away detention centers, and most others fled into the woods without food or other provisions to hide out until the agents left town.

That's why it's so critical that Georgia's immigrant rights activists are gearing up for a fight. Almost a month ago, thousands marched on the Capitol to declare, loud and clear, "Immigrants are welcome here!" Coalitions have formed to bring as many people as possible into the struggle against HB 87. Many of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s have pledged their solidarity, seeing this as a continuation of the Black struggle for legal equality.

A statewide boycott of Georgia may be inevitable, and on a local level, all sorts of groups and organizations--from unions to high school students--are organizing resistance.

Some 300 students in an Atlanta suburb recently staged a walkout to protest the bill. "If this bill passes, you won't have a school anymore," said lead organizer Brenda Fernandez as she explained the action to her principal. "Everyone will leave, so you better stand with us." Bringing together activists like Brenda from across Georgia and turning them into a wave of resistance will be essential to pushing back against this racist law.

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