DECATUR, Ga. — Over the past few years, statehouses around the country have tried to rein in cities deemed too friendly to undocumented immigrants. But Georgia is the only state that’s created an independent board with one specific mission: Punishing cities that aren’t doing enough to crack down on illegal immigration.
Typically, that responsibility falls to state attorneys general. But in Georgia, residents can file a complaint against any city or county they judge to be breaking state immigration law.
Until a recent case against the small liberal town of Decatur, though, all but one of the complaints had come from one private citizen, an avowed anti-illegal immigration activist who’s made this his life’s calling.
Then the lieutenant governor, Republican Casey Cagle, filed a complaint accusing Decatur of violating state immigration law last year as he was running for governor. And on Facebook, he threatened to yank its state funding.
“Liberal politicians in the City of Decatur are trying to put the interests of criminal illegal aliens ahead of our safety — and I will not allow it!” Cagle wrote. (He did not respond to repeated requests from Stateline for comment.)
Few locals have heard of it, but Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board was created seven years ago, when the state passed one of the nation’s strictest immigration laws. Trying to keep track of the legal comings and goings of the IERB, as the board is known, can be dizzying.
Most of its members are not attorneys or immigration experts. All are volunteers — and all are political appointees, which in this red state makes it a majority Republican board.
And while technically not a court, the board has been given many of the powers of a court: It investigates alleged wrongdoing, subpoenas witnesses and hears testimony.
The board has the power to recommend sanctions against municipalities found to be in the wrong — and ultimately, withhold millions in state funding from them as punishment.
So far, though, it has levied just one lasting fine, for $1,000 against Atlanta. A handful of small cities, though, have been forced to spend time and money defending themselves against accusations.
Two of the immigration board members refused to step down years after their terms ended, and did so only in 2018, when they were sued by a Decatur resident and accused of violating Georgia law.
“The Georgia board is an example of what not to do, rather than a model for something effective,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a national research and advocacy group that favors limited immigration to the United States.
“It’s troubling,” Vaughan said, “to have that authority go to a politically appointed group that lacks expertise in the subject matter.”
The city of Decatur has filed two lawsuits against the board, saying it has violated public meetings and public records laws; the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined one of the suits in December. (Under James Balli’s tenure as chair, he has made efforts to make the board more transparent, including releasing records to a reporter.)
Balli said it is just complying with state immigration law in its work, and until that law is changed, it’ll continue with its charge.
The 2011 law the board is focused on, HB 87, permits law enforcement officers to stop anyone they deem to be “suspicious” and ask for their papers. The law also requires cities and counties, and many businesses, to use E-Verify to ensure workers are in the country legally; and punishes those who use fake identification to get work.
“The goal is compliance, not punishment,” Balli said.
“We’re not anti-immigration,” Balli said, adding that his grandmother was an immigrant from Mexico. “We don’t want that to be the picture of this board.”
Decatur’s been described as a speck of blue in a sea of red, and that is true — up to a point. There have always been specks of blue in Georgia, and the state is increasingly trending purple. In November, Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Republican Brian Kemp in the race for governor.
But Decatur, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it, is “renowned as a bastion of Southern liberalism.” It’s Atlanta’s hippie cousin — population 23,800 — 4 square miles of bungalows, yoga studios and farm-to-table fare. In 2016, 86 percent of voters here cast their lot with Hillary Clinton.
Both Decatur and its next-door neighbor Atlanta issued directives in 2017 ordering local police not to detain immigrants, barring a court order. Decatur doesn’t even have a jail — and has few immigrants.
But for the past year, it is Decatur, not Atlanta, that has been in battle with the state, fighting accusations that it is a sanctuary city.
And even though the IERB has yet to yank state funding in any of the cases it’s heard, Decatur officials say they worry the city could lose millions in funding if the board tried to take action.
Many critics of the board, who fall on both sides of the immigration battle, have said it should be disbanded.
“It’s a court that operates in very strange, mostly nontransparent ways and yet has a tremendous amount of power,” said Naomi Tsu, who oversees the legal and advocacy work on behalf of immigrants in the Deep South for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. The center has profiled the IERB on its “Hatewatch” blog.
Then there’s Marietta, Georgia, resident D.A. King, who’s filed 20 of the 22 complaints that have come before the board. He called the IERB a “parody of a kangaroo court.”
King, a Detroit native, describes himself as a nationalist “along the lines of a George Washington,” but says that he’s not a white supremacist. Nor is he against legal immigration. “My adopted sister is from Korea,” he said.
“I’m trying to educate people about immigration. It’s about the law and what’s good for America and Americans.”
Originally, Georgia lawmakers wanted to create a court for dealing with complaints against cities and counties that were allegedly violating the law, said Rusi Patel, senior associate general counsel at the Georgia Municipal Association, a membership and advocacy organization representing Georgia’s cities and counties.
But local governments, worried about long, expensive court hearings, pushed for an alternative, Patel said. The IERB was created as a compromise.
“Personally, I’ve been hedging back and forth for a while, whether we’ve done the right thing,” Patel said.
“I don’t know if we have.”
The board meets quarterly. Some meetings have wrapped up in three minutes. Others have stretched on for hours, with tempers flaring. In June, for example, Bryan Downs, the Decatur city attorney, asked then-board member Phil Kent why he was participating in the meeting when Kent had already recused himself from the Decatur case.
Kent refused to answer, Downs said, and when pushed, demanded that the two men “step outside” to settle their differences, Downs recalled.
“It was kind of a macho thing, ‘Step out in the hall, mano a mano,’” Downs said. “It was weird.”
Kent did not respond to a request for comment.
On a recent December morning, though, three of the six board members were in attendance, and a fourth board member called in. It’s not clear where the other board members were.
One by one, the board went down a list of seven complaints against seven local school districts, all filed by King.
But he was nowhere to be found. That’s because, he said later, no one told him his complaints would be heard that day.
“It likely wouldn’t have mattered if I was there,” he said, “because the last time they heard my complaints, they refused to allow me to speak.”
Nevertheless, King’s presence was felt.
King accused the school districts of teaching English to the immigrant parents of schoolchildren in violation of a Georgia law that says anyone receiving public benefits, including adult education classes, must document that they are in the country legally.
Federal law prohibited schools from asking students their immigration status, Balli said in the meeting, so the adult education classes weren’t breaking any laws. Plus, he said, children benefit when their parents can help with homework.
“From a policy standpoint, this is the right thing to do,” Balli said. “We want children to learn.”
The board dismissed all the complaints. (On Jan. 1, King appealed the board’s decision.)
The board then decided to make a policy change and only hear two complaints a year from the same person — a change clearly targeted against King.
“It might prohibit some of the unnecessary filing,” Balli said. He turned to the representative from the Attorney General’s Office.
“Can we do that?”
Yes, the representative said. You must hear all complaints, but it doesn’t matter when you hear them.
And after 21 minutes, the meeting was adjourned, with little or no comment from the other board members. (The board is scheduled to meet again Jan. 8, ahead of schedule, through a conference call. Critics have complained the board is too secretive and schedules meetings on a whim without much notice.)
Right as the meeting wrapped up, a Woodstock, Georgia-based lawyer, Karen Sacandy, arrived, looking flustered and a little out of breath.
She said she makes a point of making the 45-minute drive down to attend every meeting she can.
Like King, she’s driven by her strong belief that immigration should be checked.
She said the IERB isn’t doing nearly enough to crack down on immigration, both legal and illegal. She’d like to see all immigration curtailed, because, she said, all immigrants — “the Latins” and “the Indians” — do is drain government resources and take jobs away from American citizens.
“Aren’t you worried about the blacks and unemployment?” she asked a reporter. “Well, I am.”
The IERB, she said, needs to be “destroyed” because it provides a facade that something’s being done when really, nothing is being done.
“It would be hilarious,” she said, “if it weren’t so tragic.”
These battles will likely get more heated, immigration experts say, unless Congress takes steps to fully define the authority of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the role of local law enforcement agencies.
“Clashes between cities and states over cooperating with ICE have been occurring with greater frequency with the Trump administration,” said Randy Capps, director of research, U.S. programs, for the Migration Policy Institute, a research group based out of Washington, D.C.
In his complaint against Decatur, Cagle, the lieutenant governor, alleged that city officials had violated the state’s “prohibition against local governments adopting, enacting, implementing, or enforcing an immigration sanctuary policy.” They issued an order “which threatens the city’s law enforcement officers with disciplinary action for fully communicating and cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and federal law enforcement.”
Decatur is not a sanctuary city, Mayor Patti Garrett said, because it doesn’t harbor immigrants who’ve been convicted or charged with crimes.
The lieutenant governor’s complaint raised eyebrows for two reasons: Georgia law specifies that private citizens, rather than public officials, can file complaints against municipalities. And two of the board members were his appointees.
“Decatur is known as a progressive city,” Garrett said. “And the lieutenant governor wanted to show some muscle on this issue. We were held up as an example.”
City officials vow to keep fighting.
“We’re not going to be bullied,” Downs said.