Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Conference Describes State’s New Immigration Law

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 26, 2007

Luis, an undocumented immigrant from San Felipe de Jesus Mission in Forest Park who gave only his first name, listened intently through a Spanish interpreter at the immigration conference April 13 at Holy Cross Church for information about State Bill 529 that goes into effect this July, as he has been driving to his construction job in fear since it was passed last year.

Luis, now 22, crossed Arizona’s Sonora Desert at the age of 15 over 10 days with less than two gallons of water, guided by a smuggler. He works from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week in construction, and he sends money home to his mother and younger sisters in Mexico City. He is like millions of poor people willing to risk his life to sneak into the United States for a better life for him and his family.

“Many people look at us like we’re bad persons. And we only come to work. … I drive with fear the police are after me” as do so many others, said the construction worker.

The church was the first place he turned to when he moved to Georgia. The church brings him “hope” to one day bring over his family, and to know Anglos and Hispanics from across Latin America. “We always look for a church to grow closer to God.”

So he eagerly attended the conference on immigration held by Catholic Charities to better understand the law passed last year by the Georgia General Assembly.

At the conference, sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, attorney Sue Colussy, director of Immigration Services, explained that sections of the S.B. 529 law passed in 2006 by the Georgia General Assembly targeting undocumented immigrants, known as the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, are duplicative of federal law and are already “in the fabric of the law,” so will result in minimal changes for Georgia’s estimated 228,000-250,000 undocumented immigrants.

“Federal law is the law of immigration. State law does not control immigration,” she explained. “Everything that the state does that is in tune with the federal government, it’s fine, and everything that it does that is not in tune, it’s not fine” and will be struck down by court rulings.

She said that it is already federal law that state agencies must verify the identity of those seeking public benefits, with certain exceptions, including emergency care, in-kind emergency services and immunizations.

“The money that states get to spend on these things is federal money. Federal law already requires (identity verification) so that’s not new,” she explained.

The law presents a new deterrent to using fraudulent documents because it requires that persons must sign an affidavit verifying their identity as U.S. citizens or lawfully present aliens. Misrepresentation is a felony.

While it was always federal law that companies are to verify the work eligibility of employees, it is now reiterated in state law that those with public contracts must participate in the electronic federal work authorization program to verify employment eligibility.

Verifying worker eligibility “is not new. That’s federal law. And in Georgia it doesn’t even say all employers, it only says employers who are getting employees to work on state contracts, public contracts,” Colussy explained. “And you know why that is? Because they were a little embarrassed when they discovered that many of the people who were helping to build the Russell Federal Building were undocumented aliens.”

She told them the law doesn’t merit leaving Georgia.

“It’s the most overrated and over-feared law,” she told the attentive crowd. “This law was written to scare people and unfortunately it has worked. … I don’t think you’re going to see any major changes in the way we do business and the way we operate.”

What seems to be most troublesome to many, she continued, is that it calls for the training of police officers in enforcement of immigration law. The law also requires that those arrested and brought to jail for drunk driving or a felony have their nationality checked through the Law Enforcement Support Center of the Department of Homeland Security. But she said that in many Georgia counties “when someone comes in and their immigration status is unclear, they are already checking” their status.

She also spoke about raids being conducted around the country by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to round up undocumented immigrants.

“Catholic Charities will be rolling out a program to help people (who are) nervous about the possibilities of a raid in Georgia… to know how to prepare your family if there is a raid.” Catholic Charities is also available to speak at parishes on the issue.

Good elements of S.B. 529 are that it makes human trafficking a felony in Georgia and traffickers can now be indicted at the state level. The law also prohibits unauthorized persons from providing legal advice.

Attendees were given information packets, including sheets with their legal rights in case of a raid; a card in English to give to an officer in case of arrest stating their right to remain silent and speak with a lawyer; a list of Catholic Charities programs; and answers to common questions about S.B. 529. It states the need for a tax ID number to pay taxes, which can be acquired by simply filling out a form, without a lawyer, for the IRS. Another question explains that citizen children seeking Medicaid don’t appear to be affected by S.B. 529 but still may have a problem now in getting it if their parents, applying on their behalf, are undocumented. It says that undocumented workers with tax IDs could be affected because the new law prevents employers from deducting expenses from their undocumented employees.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Elected Officials, which promoted the conference, said in a phone interview that the law has an exclusion so as to not affect post-secondary education benefits. But the state Board of Regents is holding meetings in May that will address the law, and he’s concerned that it could block any benefits to undocumented students.

While many undocumented in Georgia pay out-of state tuition rates, some do not. He said that schools are able to give in-state tuition waivers to no more than 2 percent of their students, whether to foreigners, out-of-state youth, or undocumented.

For those undocumented who’ve graduated from high school, qualify for waivers and are performing well, such as about 80 students at Dalton State College, “Why would we want to take that hope from them by removing their access to in-state tuition?” he asked.

Regarding public health benefits, he emphasized that the undocumented are already unable to receive benefits and that the electronic eligibility system has “many, many problems” and is “not a foolproof system.” He is also concerned that citizen children entitled to benefits may have trouble accessing them if their parents have to go through this verification process. GALEO is studying how Colorado implemented a similar law last year and spent about $200 million implementing a public benefit denial process and netted zero savings. But so far he’s heard of no Georgia state guidelines for enforcing the verification process at the state and local level.

“It’s fiscally irresponsible if it will be implemented in a non-discriminate way, but the state is not taking any steps to enforce it,” he said. “It demonstrates it was done for politics, not policy.”

Luis of San Felipe was relieved to learn at the conference that S.B. 529 measures won’t change life as much as he thought and said he would take the information back to his friends.

He said he has a tax ID number to pay taxes, and while he earns lower pay at work and has no security because he lacks “papers,” he’s still grateful to earn a living wage and hopes for a better future for his family. The event for him was “the first step in coming together, being able to learn, the first step for a better life.”

For an analysis of S.B. 529, visit