ATLANTA - A federal judge in Atlanta has cleared the way for a section of Georgia's tough law targeting illegal immigration that had been blocked to enter into effect.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash has signed an order adopting a judgment on the law by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a ruling before the law was set to take effect in July 2011, Thrash had issued preliminary injunctions that blocked some parts of the law pending the outcome of a legal challenge to the law filed by a coalition of activist groups.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit in August ruled that a part of the law that authorizes law enforcement to verify the immigration status of criminal suspects who fail to produce proper identification should be allowed to go into effect. Thrash's order, which showed up in an online filing system Tuesday, seems to indicate that law enforcement agencies can immediately begin enforcing that section of the law, said lawyers in the case.
The 11th Circuit panel left in place Thrash's injunction blocking part of the law that makes it illegal for someone to knowingly harbor or transport an illegal immigrant during the commission of a crime. That section of the law remains blocked under Thrash's new order. The state can still appeal that part of the 11th Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The order issued Monday does not resolve the lawsuit filed by the activist groups challenging the law. It merely addresses the preliminary injunctions. The full legal challenge to the law, which alleges it is unconstitutional and is pre-empted by federal law, could drag on for years, lawyers in the case said.
"We're going to be monitoring the implementation of the show-me-your-papers provision in Georgia very carefully," said Karen Tumlin, a lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center, referring to the law enforcement section of the law. She said they'll gather evidence on how the law is interpreted and enforced to use in seeking a permanent injunction of that section.
The Georgia attorney general's office said in a statement that Thrash's order simply applies the recent 11th Circuit order applying Section 8, the law enforcement provision of the law.
"As the State has argued throughout this litigation, Section 8 does not break new ground as law enforcement already independently possesses this authority," the statement says.
Omar Jadwat, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that challenged the law, said that while the order seems to lift the injunction, "it would be irresponsible for the state to go ahead and start enforcing it without providing guidance to law enforcement on how it should be enforced.
Police departments and sheriff's offices in the state are governed by local governments, which will have to make decisions about how to enforce the law. Unlike similar laws in other states, such as Arizona, Georgia's law does not require officers to check someone's immigration status. Instead it authorizes them to do so during the investigation of another crime if the suspect cannot produce an acceptable form of identification, such as a valid driver's license.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff's Association, and Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, both said they hadn't issued any sort of guidance to local agencies on how to enforce the law.
Norris plans to talk to his organization's training committee to see if they planned to issue any guidelines, but because of the large number of laws that officers have to enforce it's not practical to issue guidance for each one, he said.
"If anything changes, it will not be an overnight change," he said. "It will be a gradual acknowledgement of the provisions and a determination of how to enforce them."
Rotondo said he doesn't expect it to have a great impact on the way law enforcement officers operate and that individual local agencies will enforce the law based on their resources and priorities.