From AJC.com, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeremy Redmon, 25 Jun 2011.
Billy and Kathy Inman of Woodstock will be listening closely when U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash issues his decision this week.
Thrash is weighing if he should put on hold Georgia’s stringent new immigration enforcement law, pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality.
The Inmans have a vested interest in Thrash’s decision. Their teenage son was killed 11 years ago when a vehicle driven by an illegal immigrant slammed into their car. They want to make it harder for illegal immigrants to settle in Georgia.
The new law, they believe, would do just that.
The law, set to take effect Friday, would empower local and state police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and arrest illegal immigrants. But critics say the law is unconstitutional because it invites racial profiling and authorizes police to detain people for lengthy periods in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In the two months since the law was passed, pundits, politicians and interest groups have had plenty to say on the topic. But Georgians across the state — like South Georgia farmer Gary Paulk, local activist Judy Craft, illegal immigrant Fernando Juarez and police chief John King — are also anxiously waiting to see what will happen, and many have a personal stake in the results.
Dustin Inman’s room is, for the most part, the same as it was on the day he died.
The teenager’s miniature race cars and lava lamp are still on a shelf. His BB gun is still propped up in its glass case. And his easy chair still points to the PlayStation video game console he played with his father. Leaving Dustin’s room intact helps Billy and Kathy Inman feel close to their son.
Dustin was killed in a car crash in 2000. A man smashed into the rear end of their car at high speed as they were stopped at a red light in East Ellijay. The family was headed to a Father’s Day weekend cookout in Hiawassee. The crash knocked Billy and Kathy unconscious. Kathy remained in a coma for five weeks and didn’t get out of the hospital for three months. Her medical bills topped $1 million. She still uses a wheelchair.
The driver who hit them, Gonzalo Harrell-Gonzalez, fled from the hospital where authorities took him after the wreck. A native of Mexico, the man was illegally in the country at the time of the accident, according to the FBI. He is still at large.
Billy blames the federal government’s failure to secure the nation’s borders for the death of his son, saying of Harrell-Gonzalez, “If the laws had been enforced, he would not have been here.” He hopes the new law could help prevent tragedies like the one his family has endured.
Billy became an activist after his son’s death, campaigning hard against illegal immigration. A group that advocates enforcement of federal immigration and employment laws named itself after Billy’s son: the Dustin Inman Society. It pushed for the passage of Georgia’s new immigration law in the state Legislature.
On Thursday, Billy and his wife sat at their kitchen table, reminiscing about their boy. They recalled his sweetness, his keen sense of humor and his fondness for hunting and fishing.
“We have been through hell,” Kathy said.
Billy listened quietly to his wife. “I lost my son,” he said softly. “I lost everything. My dreams are shattered.”
No help in the fields
June has been a tough month for Gary Paulk’s business. He said 20 of the Hispanic migrant workers he depends on to pick blackberries on his family farm in South Georgia lined up and turned in their equipment this month.
The job wasn’t the problem, they told him. Nor the pay. They were worried about the state’s new immigration law, Paulk said. Would police use it as an excuse to harass them? Could they be deported?
Those 20 workers who left represent one-fifth of Paulk’s workforce. His family-owned farm has already lost about $200,000 in blackberry crops because of labor shortages, he said. The fifth-generation farmer is now considering raising cotton on his farm in Wray. Such a crop, he said, could be managed with fewer workers.
“We never got enough workers to get the crop in, so we abandoned acres,” Paulk said of his blackberries. He added about his workers: “I love these people. I feel for them. I could go do something else. It won’t be easy. But I have had these people work for me for 25 years. What are they going to do?”
Paulk, who hopes the federal judge scraps the law, is not alone in his worries. Georgia’s agricultural leaders say the new law is scaring away many of the migrant workers farmers depend on, putting hundreds of millions of dollars in fruit and vegetable crops at risk.
A state survey released this month reveals the scope of the farm industry’s problems: There are as many as 11,080 farming jobs open in Georgia now, or about 14 percent of the full-time positions that are filled in the industry annually. Farmers are warning this problem could reach metro Atlanta as the labor gap could boost prices in local grocery stores.
‘Illegal is illegal’
Judy Craft spent several days this year working at the state Capitol. An activist from Norcross, she attended committee hearings on Georgia’s new immigration law, urging lawmakers to support the measure. The retired school teacher estimated she spent as many as nine days pushing the issue.
Craft said illegal immigrants are burdening the state’s taxpayer-funded schools, jails and hospitals. She pointed to a recent estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center that puts the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia at 425,000, the seventh-highest among the states. Craft hopes the judge will uphold the new law this week.
“It’s a tremendous cost and burden to our own citizens,” Craft, a member of the Dustin Inman Society, said of illegal immigration. “We have an unemployment problem in this state. A lot of jobs are being taken by people who shouldn’t even be here.”
But there is also something more fundamental for Craft.
“I have to think of it in the aspect of the rule of law and what is right and what is wrong,” she said. “Illegal is illegal.”
A reluctance to return
Fernando Juarez crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. illegally more than 10 years ago, looking for a better way to support his family.
He started a landscaping business and eventually settled with his wife and three children in Chamblee. All of them are in the country illegally, except for his 3-year-old daughter, who was born in the United States. A son and a daughter attend a DeKalb County charter school, where Juarez volunteers his time doing landscaping work and serving as a Spanish translator.
Juarez worries what could happen to them now, particularly since he drives to work without a license. Could he be deported under the new law and separated from his family? Just in case, he said, he recently obtained dual Mexican-U.S. citizenship for his 3-year-old. That should make it easier for him to reunite with her in Mexico should he be deported.
“My kids are asking me every day, ‘What will we do if you do not come back?’ ” he said.
The prospect of returning to Mexico frightens Juarez. He wonders if the drug-fueled violence there could harm his wife and children.
Juarez said he can understand why U.S. citizens are irritated with illegal immigrants who don’t pay income taxes but get taxpayer-funded benefits in Georgia. They should work for these services and pay their taxes, Juarez said. For his part, Juarez said he has been paying income taxes for seven years through a tax identification number he received.
“I have been working very hard,” he said, “because I want to be part of the system.”
The rule of law
Enforcing the law would be a delicate task for John King. Here’s why: He’s the top cop in Doraville, a city in north DeKalb where more than half of the population was born in another country. Nearly half the city’s residents who are 5 or older are not U.S. citizens. Most are Hispanic.
King stressed he wants his officers to focus on protecting lives and property while showing compassion and using common sense.
“We have to apply that law to everyone, not just to one group who the community might feel might be illegal,” said King, who was born in Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish. “It is not just Hispanic groups that this law will be applied to. It will be applied to everyone.”
King pointed out the law does not provide additional money for local police training or enforcement. He is also worried about liability. Police, he said, must protect people’s civil rights while enforcing the law.
“There is no question that people want to implement the law as intended by the Legislature,” he said. “But we don’t want to gamble with the city treasury and the civil rights of our residents and our citizens.”