Georgia Bill Would Punish Cities and Counties That Break Law Against 'Sanctuary' for Immigrants

ATLANTA (AP) -- Some Georgia senators want to punish cities and counties that they say are illegally harboring immigrants who are in the country without permission by cutting off most state aid to the local government and removing elected officials from office.

The Senate Public Safety Committee voted 4-1 on Wednesday to rewrite House Bill 301, with supporters saying the move is needed to enforce a 2009 state law that outlaws so-called sanctuary cities and counties.

It's the latest measure proposed by Republicans after police accused a Venezuelan man of beating a nursing student to death on the University of Georgia campus.

Jose Ibarra was arrested last month on murder and assault charges in the death of 22-year-old Laken Riley. Immigration authorities say Ibarra, 26, unlawfully crossed into the United States in 2022. It is unclear whether he has applied for asylum.

Riley was a nursing student at Augusta University's Athens campus. She was found dead Feb. 22 after a roommate reported she didn't return from a morning run in a wooded area.

The Senate committee completely rewrote a bill that previously regulated penalties from speeding tickets issued by automated cameras. State Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat, complained that she had no time to read the new language before the meeting, calling it "frustrating and disappointing."

The new bill would let any Georgia resident sue, asking a judge to declare a city or county was violating the 2009 law. If a judge agrees, the state would cut off state aid, as well as federal aid it controls, except for a short list of emergency and health services. For example, a county or city would get no state money for building and maintaining roads.

Judges could restore funding if a local government repeals the offending policy. A judge would then be required to issue a permanent order barring the government from ever readopting any sanctuary policy.

The bill also provides for removal of local elected officials if cities or counties adopt sanctuary policy. The bill lets any Georgia resident complain to the Board of Community Affairs. The board would conduct a hearing on whether an official is breaking state law and recommend to the governor whether to suspend the official. The governor could then remove the official and appoint a replacement.

Officials can petition to be reinstated, but that would happen only if they can show that their service "is more likely than not to improve the ability" of the government to comply with the anti-sanctuary law.

Republican Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula told the committee that the measure would ensure sheriff's offices comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement so they don't evade the 2009 law.

"What we've done in this legislation is we've added some teeth, because there were none in the past," Robertson said.

Critics of the measure say it's a further attempt by Republican lawmakers to impose their will on cities and counties, and would let activists tie up cities and counties with court cases and administrative proceedings.

"We have built-in accountability measures for when communities do not like what their local government or local sheriffs are doing, and those are elections. We should not be using the legislature to dictate to local communities," said Isabel Otero, Georgia policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Otero likened the measure to Georgia's former Immigration Enforcement Review Board, which investigated complaints about local immigration enforcement. For example, then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle filed a complaint that the Atlanta suburb of Decatur was violating state law in 2017 when Cagle was running for governor. The board dismissed the complaint against Decatur, and a law quietly dissolved the board in 2019.

It's the second bill seeking a harder stance on immigration to advance this year. Last week the Georgia House voted 97-74 for House Bill 1105, which seeks to require local law enforcement to help identify immigrants in the country illegally and detain them for possible deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Multiple Republicans on Wednesday said Athens-Clarke County was a target of the new proposal, including Lt. Gov Burt Jones.

"As part of our ongoing commitment to protect Georgians, we are taking a stand against those who attempt to implement sanctuary policies that violate the law and harbor criminals," Jones said in a statement.

Athens-Clarke Mayor Kelly Girtz has denied that the consolidated city-county is violating state law, noting that it files a yearly certification of compliance. Critics point to a 2019 resolution by the Athens-Clarke County Commission that said local government "strives to foster a community where individuals of all statuses feel safe." But Girtz notes that resolution doesn't have the force of law.