Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


New Immigration Law ‘Dividing Us,’ Bishop Zarama Says

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2011

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 into law May 13. Legal challenges to the new law are expected and might delay implementation, but it is scheduled otherwise to take effect July 1.

The Catholic bishops of Georgia were among those who opposed its passage. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama of Atlanta, and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah issued a joint statement in March asking instead for comprehensive immigration reform to be enacted at the federal level.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta has now scheduled a meeting on Thursday, May 19, at the Catholic Center in Smyrna for all its priests and deacons to talk about what is in the law and what the impact is expected to be on parishes and individuals. Four additional meetings will be held in May and June for lay Catholics to receive information and have their questions answered.

Concerns have been raised about all people continuing to have access to the pastoral and sacramental life of the church and what impact the law might have on social services, works of mercy and ministries.

Evening meetings from 6-8 p.m. will be held Thursday, May 26, at St. Matthew Church, Winder; Monday, June 13, at St. Matthew Church, Tyrone; Thursday, June 16, at the Catholic Center, Smyrna; and Thursday, June 30, at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Cartersville. Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference, and Jennifer Bensman, Catholic Charities Atlanta immigration legal services director, will give presentations.

The Georgia law imposes new criminal penalties on anyone employing illegal immigrants. It also imposes new criminal penalties on anyone who uses fraudulent identification in order to get a job and on those who transport or “harbor” illegal immigrants. The law also gives law enforcement officers in the state the power to enforce federal immigration laws in certain circumstances and requires most private employers to use a federal verification system known as E-Verify to screen those who have been hired for jobs.

In an interview May 13, Bishop Zarama said from his perspective as a pastor who works in multicultural and multilingual parishes, the law’s shadow aims  “to make us afraid to keep serving our people . . . to make me afraid to spend time with them.“

“That is awful,” he said.

A native of Colombia, South America, who became an American citizen, Bishop Zarama said he has met many people in North Georgia who have been raised in the United States since they were small children, gone to school here and done well, but who do not have a legal path they can take to become citizens.

“We don’t have a system now,” he said. “That is the big problem, and we are not focusing on that.”

Bishop Zarama said the law is already harmful to the lives of everyone in the community, legal residents and illegal immigrants, alike.

“The negative psychological effect of that law in Atlanta already is working,” he said. “The sad part is how that law is continually dividing us.”

“This law will affect us who are legal as much as those who are illegal,” he said.

He said he hoped that the Georgia law would be challenged in court and, in particular, he hoped that the U.S. Justice Department would challenge it as they challenged a stringent immigration measure passed by the state of Arizona in 2010. The U.S. Justice Department is seeking to strike down most of the Arizona law, in part saying the state law usurps rights of the federal government to determine immigration policy.

Speaking to the faith community, Bishop Zarama cited the scriptural account of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt when King Herod sought to kill Jesus.

He said, “We need to pray and to remember that Jesus, with his family—not because of their will, but because of their need—had to emigrate to another country.”

“That is the situation with most of our people,” Bishop Zarama said.

“And the immigrants who came many years ago, they came because they had to,” he added. “The immigration system then was different, but they were illegal then, too,” he said. “We need to use our memory and remember our past,” he said. “This country was built by immigrants.”

In a press statement, Gov. Deal said, “Illegal immigration is a complex and troublesome issue, and no state alone can fix it. We will continue to have a broken system until we have a federal solution. In the meantime, states must act to defend their taxpayers.”

He asserted that Georgians have spent “billions of dollars . . . on our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms and our jails because of people who are in our state illegally.”

He said, “This immigration reform measure fulfills my promise to Georgians to crack down on the influx of illegal immigrants into our state. Georgia has the sixth highest number of illegal residents, and this comes at enormous expense to Georgia taxpayers.”

Here are key points in the illegal immigration law. The law:

  • Creates a new criminal offense of aggravated identity fraud for anyone willfully using fraudulent documents to get a job. A person under 21 would be punished by 1-3 years in prison and/or a fine up to $5,000. Those 21 and up would face minimally 1-10 years in jail and/or a fine up to $100,000.
  • Empowers any peace officer with probable cause to believe a person has committed a criminal offense, including a traffic offense, to investigate their immigration status if they cannot produce valid identification and detain them if they are found to be in the country illegally.
  • States that a person’s race, color or country of origin is not to be a determinant in investigating their immigration status.
  • States that a person who contacts the police to report a crime, as a witness to a crime or victim of a crime will not have their status investigated.
  • Requires that when anyone is held in county or municipal jail for any reason, an effort is made to verify that they are in the country legally and if they are not in the country legally, immigration authorities will be notified and they will be subject to detention.
  • Creates a new criminal offense: transporting or moving an illegal alien. Creates a new criminal offense: knowingly and intentionally inducing an illegal alien to enter Georgia. Penalties range from less than 1 year in jail and/or a fine to 1-5 years in jail and/or a fine.
  • Creates a new criminal offense: concealing or harboring an illegal alien. Harboring is defined to mean anything that substantially helps an illegal alien to remain in the United States. Exceptions are: a person helping infants or children, a crime victim, in a medical emergency, a person offering privately funded social services, or attorney-client representation. Penalties mirror those for transporting an illegal alien.
  • Requires any private employer with more than 10 employees to use the federal E-Verify program to determine that any newly hired employee is in the country legally. This will be effective on Jan. 1, 2012 for employers with 500 or more employees, July 2012 for employers of 100 up to 499 employees and July 1, 2013 for employers of more than 10 but fewer than 100 employees. In order to receive a business license or renew a license, businesses will have to show they are registered with E-Verify. Violation of this will be a criminal offense.