A federal judge responsible for deciding the merits of Georgia's new anti-immigration law has agreed to temporarily block enforcement of some of the law's most controversial parts.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash issued the order Monday in Atlanta, mere days before House Bill 87 was set to take effect.
Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday afternoon the state will appeal the judge's ruling
“Gov. Deal is disappointed that the court enjoined two sections of Georgia’s immigration law,” said Brian Robinson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “... The state of Georgia narrowly tailored its immigration law to conform with existing federal law and court rulings. Georgians can rest assured that this battle doesn’t end here; we will appeal this decision.”
Civil rights groups had asked the judge to block its enforcement until a suit against the case could be settled.
Among other groups, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over the new law, claiming it violated Georgians' constitutional rights as well as the rights of residents from other states to travel through Georgia and preempted federal immigration laws.
The state's attorneys have argued the law seeks to preserve taxpayer dollars from being spent on illegal immigrants, and have asked that the suit be dismissed in whole or in part.
Thrash's ruling Monday denied much of the state's request, but the judge did dismiss a claim that the law violated the Fourth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as the state had requested.
Thrash also dismissed a claim that the bill violates the rights of residents from other states to travel in Georgia.
Two sections of the bill - one that makes it a crime to knowingly transport illegal immigrants and another that authorizes local law enforcement to check the immigration status of any suspect - are now on hold until the two sides can argue their merits.
Still, 21 of 23 sections of the law will go into effect as planned, Attorney General Sam Olens said in a news release.
Though Olens' statement expressed pleasure with the judge's decision to dismiss the claims that the bill violated the constitution, he did plan to appeal the judge's ruling that two sections of the bill preempted federal law.
Thrash blocked the two parts of the bill because he said the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claims that parts of House Bill 87 preempt federal law. Also, he wrote, the law is likely to cause irreparable harm to the groups that have filed suit.
The law, by authorizing local law enforcement officers to verify a suspect's immigration status, gives local police "significant discretion" in how to enforce the bill, Thrash wrote.
The discretion "poses a serious risk that HB 87 will result in inconsistent civil immigration policies not only between federal and state governments, but among law enforcement jurisdictions within Georgia."
The risk is greater, Thrash writes, as other states such as Arizona and Wisconsin write their own immigration laws.
Thrash's decision Monday took issue with the state's argument that "every day that passes with passive enforcement of the federal (immigration) law is a day that drains the state coffers."
Thrash says immigration violations were prosecuted more than any other offense in federal court last year.
"The widespread belief that the federal government is doing nothing about immigration is the belief in a myth," Thrash wrote.
He said groups who have sued the state over the law's preemption of federal immigration law were likely to succeed in their claims.
"The varieties of immigration statuses are numerous and include many categories of individuals who have technically violated the immigration law but who are nonetheless present in the United States with the permission of the United States government, as well as many people who are awaiting adjudication of their removability or claims to asylum or other relief form removal," Thrash wrote.
He included paragraphs of federal immigration laws with little comment.
"That remains the law of the land," Thrash wrote.
Also, Thrash challenged the bill's definition of "harboring" illegal immigrants. The state's attorneys, in their defense of the bill, have stated that the state's definition mirrors federal definitions.
"The Defendants wildly exaggerate the scope of the federal crime of harboring under (federal law) when they claim that Plaintiffs are violating federal immigration law by giving rides to their friends and neighbors who are illegal aliens," Thrash wrote. "This is a good reason to require federal supervision of any attempts by Georgia to enforce federal immigration law."
Thrash called a claim by the state's attorneys that House Bill 87 sought to prevent exploitation of illegal immigrants "gross hypocrisy."
"The apparent legislative intent is to create such a climate of hostility, fear, mistrust and insecurity that all illegal aliens will leave Georgia," he wrote.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal promises to soon issue a statement on the ruling.