Controversial immigration bills move through Georgia legislature

Georgia State Representative Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, presents HB 1105, a bill that would require local and state law enforcement to take on some of the responsibilities of federal immigration enforcement on Thursday, February 29, 2024.

Matthew Pearson / Matthew Pearson

Immigration remained top of mind in the state Capitol this week as Laken Riley’s father spoke against immigrants in the country illegally and legislators passed three controversial immigration bills. 

On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Colton Moore honored the 22-year-old nursing student who was killed while on a run on the University of Georgia campus. A Venezuelan migrant who crossed the border into Texas illegally was arrested in relation to her killing, and since then, lawmakers have taken a pointed interest in creating stricter immigration legislation in the state.

“My vision for every senator in this chamber is that you protect citizens from this illegal invasion,” said Riley’s father, Jason, as he spoke in the Senate chamber. “Please recognize Athens-Clarke is a sanctuary city, and this policy and the lack of action led to the murder of my daughter.” 

Georgia banned sanctuary city policies in 2009. In 2016, it required local governments to show they’re following federal immigration rules to receive state money. 

On Thursday, state senators approved a bill that would allow residents to report governments they think have sanctuary city policies to the county’s Superior Court. The bill would punish those accused by cutting off some state funding and removing elected officials.

House Bill 301 passed largely along party lines.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones said in a statement, “The Georgia Senate substitute to HB 301 gives teeth to our existing law on sanctuary cities by finally giving citizens a way to ensure that local governments who implement dangerous sanctuary policies answer for their actions.” 

Another bill with sanctuary city provisions, among other things, passed along party lines on Thursday. 

HB 1105 has drawn the most attention for its provisions requiring state and local law enforcement to partner with the Department of Homeland Security. Opponents of the bill say local officers will be compelled to take on some responsibilities of enforcing immigration law.  

The bill also adds misdemeanor charges for people violating the state’s already-existing anti-sanctuary city law.

HB 1105 faces widespread opposition from organizations that support immigrants and refugees. Before the Senate heard the bill, several immigrant’s rights advocacy groups protested in front of the state capitol. The protests came after weeks of asking lawmakers to vote against bills advocates and community members said are rooted in anti-immigrant rhetoric inflamed by the upcoming presidential election. 

Advocates also protested against a bill that would bar “foreign adversaries” from buying agricultural land or land near military bases. Georgia House of Representatives members passed that bill, SB 420, Thursday.

Bills with similar language have popped up over the last few legislative sessions.

Republicans said this would protect national security, and the bill relies on the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to define which countries are foreign adversaries. Right now, China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Venezuela are on that list. 

Democrats agreed national security should be a key priority but said this bill would unintentionally boost racial profiling.

“I personally have been accused of being an agent of the Chinese Communist Party, a spy, a plant, un-American and a foreign asset, and that’s just this week,” said Rep. Michelle Au. She’s the chair of the Asian American Pacific Islander caucus. 

“This reflexive, reactive, florid reaction and the assumptions that people make about people who look like me…is in fact part of the phenomenon that makes SB 420 such a bad bill,” she said.

All three bills must get final approval in their originating chambers before being sent to Gov. Kemp to sign into law.