Georgia’s Unnoticed, Rarely Used Immigration Review Board

Georgia has a state immigration board that, in almost a decade of existence, has only served two people.

The story begins in 2011, when Georgia lawmakers passed HB 87, one of the strictest laws in the U.S. aimed at curbing illegal immigration. But a provision in the law created something unique to the state: the Immigration Enforcement Review Board (IERB), tasked with investigating complaints about municipalities not enforcing immigration laws.

The seven-member board, made up of volunteers with little immigration or legal expertise, has the power to recommend sanctions against municipalities that they judge to not be following the law. Sanctions can include removal from Georgia’s list of qualified local governments, fines of $1,000 to $5,000, and loss of state funding, according to the IERB’s rules. Members are appointed for two-year terms by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House of Representatives. The annual budget is $20,000.

People on both sides of the immigration debate do not support the board in its current iteration.

Georgia’s board is a “curious way” to ensure legal compliance, says Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization that advocates for limited immigration. Usually, states give authority to ensure legal compliance to the attorney general or another state agency.

“I don’t think it’s had much effect at all on compliance with the law,” Vaughan says. “It was pretty much set up to fail.”

Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, a social justice organization based in Atlanta, says the board should not exist.

“From the start, they’ve had concerns about due process and fairness issues and really the fact that any vigilante member of the public can go ahead and file a complaint before this body,” she says. “The body has enormous power in terms of being able to subpoena people and documents and fine localities.”

James Balli, the IERB’s chairman, declined to comment; other members of the board did not respond.

Any Georgia resident who is a registered voter can file a complaint, but only two have, for a total of 22 complaints, according to Stateline. The majority of complaints have come from an anti-immigration activist in suburban Atlanta who consulted on HB 87 with its author. In a recent meeting, the IERB discussed complaints made by the activist against boards of education in several counties for allegedly providing English education programs to immigrant parents of students. Balli said federal law prohibits schools from verifying the residency status of students or their parents, so adult education programs were legal. The complaints were dismissed.

The other Georgia resident who has filed a complaint with the IERB is then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican who was running for governor at the time and appointed members to the IERB. In November 2017, Cagle accused Decatur, a city just outside of Atlanta, of not cooperating with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. In response, Decatur filed lawsuits challenging the board’s compliance with state transparency laws and term limits.

Though Cagle didn’t appear at the Jan. 8 meeting and didn’t win the case against Decatur or the governorship, the city had to spend time and resources defending itself in a complaint that was open for more than a year.

The IERB’s first and only fine was $1,000 against the city of Atlanta for violating a state law by verifying the lawful presence of people applying for public benefits. But the cost can go beyond fines. Shahshahani says municipalities, many of which might not have the resources, have to consider the prospect of confronting the IERB.

“We’re very grateful to the City of Decatur for standing up and fighting back, but not every locality and municipality is in a position to be able to do that,” she says. “When they consider the possibility of adopting a measure that might make their community more welcoming, they have to consider the very real possibility that a complaint could be filed against them with the Immigration Enforcement Review Board and what that could mean in terms of potential fines or otherwise and the time that they have to take away from busy schedules to go before this body and defend themselves.”

There are also concerns about the board’s members, who have little immigration expertise. Balli, the chairman, is a lawyer who focuses on local governmental relations. He was appointed to the board in 2014 by house speaker David Ralston, also serving on Ralston’s legal team when the speaker was charged with violating State Bar rules. The other five board members are two mayors, a former county commission chairman, a county sheriff and chairman of one of the Georgia Republican Party’s congressional districts. The remaining board seat is vacant. The IERB membership leans Republican.

“The membership is politically driven. People who are appointed to it are not officers of the state or really equipped for enforcement. And it just seems like a political prop rather than an actual, serious effort to ensure compliance with the law,” Vaughan says. “It was set up for political reasons, perhaps to assuage special interest groups that they were going to have a voice in making sure the law was enforced or not enforced, and the board doesn’t have any accountability to either Georgia citizens or government agencies and no real expertise or authority to give weight to their considerations.”

The board has had issues with members serving longer than they’re supposed to. Members serve terms of two years with the option to be reappointed for an additional term. But two members appointed in 2011 only resigned in 2018 after Decatur filed its lawsuits. Another member, who is still on the board, has served since 2011.

People have also questioned the board’s transparency. Brenda Lopez Romero, an immigration lawyer and Georgia Democratic state representative, says meeting times were often not made available to the public. But at an IERB meeting on Dec. 5, Balli discussed a plan to ensure meeting dates are scheduled in advance. IERB also vowed to become more transparent as part of its settlement with Decatur, agreeing to improve its compliance with state open records and open meetings laws.

In January, IERB posted meeting times for the rest of 2019 on its website, information not there before.

Vaughan says it would be politically difficult to eliminate the IERB, so state lawmakers should hold hearings to give experts and stakeholders from all sides a chance to discuss the board’s effectiveness and ways to improve it.

“I don’t think this board seems ready to use its authority,” she says. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a board like this to have that authority without these other processes in place, like openness and accountability and expertise.”

Romero says the board is not needed because government agencies don’t often willfully violate federal law.

“What it does do is that it says something about our state and the fact that we have this unnecessary – both in practice and also in expense – review board,” she says. “I see it (as) more of a political statement, more so than something functional and practical or something needed in our state.”

(Author Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post and Atlanta news outlets.)

(Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board has the power to recommend sanctions against municipalities that it judges to not be following the law. PHOTO: PRINCE WILLIAMS-WIREIMAGE-GETTY IMAGES)