How we beat anti-immigrant fervor

COMMENTARY by Azadeh Shahshahani, Tribune News Service

In May, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp did something surprising. He signed into law legislation that dismantled a state body that allowed anti-immigrant vigilantes to file complaints against local governments perceived as friendly to immigrants.

The Immigration Enforcement Review Board had long been plagued by due process violations and lack of oversight. Its mere existence scared cities and towns with limited resources from taking steps to welcome immigrants.

The action by Kemp was the result of years of grassroots organizing in local communities. In an era in which states from North Carolina to Texas are implementing anti-immigrant measures and the federal government hands down policies aimed at caging and deporting immigrants, Georgia provides a hopeful example.

The Immigration Enforcement Review Board was established in 2011 to investigate complaints against public agencies or employees for violating or failing to enforce Georgia’s anti-immigrant laws. The board could impose penalties including $5,000 fines and withdrawal of state funding.
The complaint process was ripe for abuse. Any resident of Georgia who was also a registered voter could submit a complaint. And complainants did not need to show that they had been injured by an agency’s or an officer’s failure to comply.

The board was composed of seven members. They included state officials who had long assumed anti-immigrant stances. As the board, they clearly targeted local governments that welcomed immigrants. In its first six years of existence, the body received 20 complaints; all but one came from a notorious anti-immigrant figure.

This proved to be the case with the then-lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, who as part of his campaign for governor filed a baseless complaint against the city of Decatur because it had formalized a policy limiting collaboration with ICE.

Decatur is among seven localities in Georgia that have put into place policies limiting their collaboration with ICE — part of a campaign by a broad coalition of grassroots immigrants’ rights and social justice organizations. My group, Project South, as part of this coalition, employed a legal strategy to warn localities about the legal ramifications of unconstitutional collaboration with ICE.

Faced by the complaint from Cagle and a relentless public campaign against Decatur, the Decatur community urged their city officials to stand up to the lieutenant governor and the Immigration Enforcement Review Board. They made it clear to the city that as a self-avowed welcoming community, they expected Decatur to go on the offensive rather than backing down.
With community support, the city doubled down and brought several lawsuits against the board, forcing the resignation of board’s chairman and two other members.

The board ultimately settled with the city of Decatur earlier this year, paying $12,000 in attorney fees and other costs and agreeing to more transparency in its proceedings. It was an outcome that Casey Cagle and the rest of the political establishment never could have expected when they decided to scapegoat Decatur. A few months later, the board was gone.

This win could never have been achieved without a clear and long-term vision of social change through grassroots organizing. The key was to focus locally, pressure progressive city officials into action, build a broad coalition, and tie grassroots organizing with legal support.
If this can happen in Georgia, it can happen anywhere.

Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director with Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She tweets @ashahshahani.