At debates and forums, on their websites and in television advertisements, the four top contenders in the seven-person GOP primary say they’d support a tough immigration law like the one that recently passed in Arizona. And they’re calling on state college administrators to make sure no illegal immigrants attend state schools.
“The competing Republican gubernatorial candidates are simply trying to show that they are very much committed to tougher immigration policy,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “There’s probably not a whole lot of difference between what they would do but, you know, it plays well.”
With a comprehensive immigration reform plan seeming unlikely to make it onto the congressional agenda this year, immigration might have lost footing this election year to pressing issues such as health care and the economy. But the passage of a strict new law in Arizona in April sparked months of heated debate.
“The reality is illegal immigration is a big problem nationwide, and it’s a big problem in Georgia,” said Stephen Puetz, campaign manager for Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the GOP money leader. “Our state needs to do more if the federal government isn’t going to enforce their laws.”
The Arizona law, which goes into effect next month, requires police investigating another incident or crime to ask people about their immigration status if there’s a “reasonable suspicion” they’re in the country illegally.
It has been widely decried by civil liberties and immigrant rights activists, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said the federal government planned to sue over the issue.
The four leading contenders for the Republican nomination for governor in Georgia have all said they would like to see a law here that mirrors the Arizona law.
“Nathan would put into law legislation similar to what passed in Arizona,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for former congressman Nathan Deal. “Immigration reform will be part of his mandate in his first session at the Legislature as governor.”
The high-profile case of an illegal immigrant student at Kennesaw State University who was arrested in the spring after being stopped for a minor traffic violation and was nearly deported before the federal government deferred action on her case for a year has also fueled the immigration debate in Georgia.
“Karen thinks we should check the legal status of students, and that those who are not here legally should be removed from school and should, frankly, be sent back to their country of origin,” said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
Handel and the other three leading Republican candidates have all called on the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities and colleges, to come up with a way to verify that applicants are in the country legally.
Former state Sen. Eric Johnson earlier this month unveiled a proposal that would require elementary and secondary schools to collect citizenship data on enrolling students and also would require public hospitals to find out which patients are in the country legally.
Deal has publicly sparred with Johnson over that proposal, saying teachers and hospitals shouldn’t be dragged into enforcement of immigration laws.
Oxendine has said he will work with the state’s next attorney general to sue the federal government to recoup prison and other costs incurred by the state for the detention of any illegal immigrant. His reasoning for that, said Puetz, is that states wouldn’t have to bear those costs if the federal government had effectively done its job of keeping illegal immigrants out.
In his role as insurance commissioner, a seat he’s held since 1994, Oxendine hasn’t dealt much with the issue of illegal immigration. The other three leading Republicans all tout their past records as indicators of future toughness.
Johnson notes that he was president pro tem in the state Senate when Georgia passed one of the toughest immigration laws in the country.
Handel implemented the use of the federal SAVE database to verify the immigration status of applicants for professional licenses when she was secretary of state, McLagan said.
Deal’s campaign notes he consistently pushed for stricter enforcement of federal immigration laws while he was in Congress.
While immigration has been a much-discussed topic for Republicans in the gubernatorial primary, it’s barely been a blip on the radar on the Democratic side. But Bullock, the UGA professor, thinks it’s a topic the Democratic nominee won’t be able to avoid.
“I think it will continue on into the general election,” he said. “It’s going to be an issue that I think we’re going to see Republicans using across the nation.”
That wouldn’t be a new tactic. When Gov. Sonny Perdue was running for re-election in 2006, GOP ads depicted him as tough on illegal immigration after he signed a strict immigration bill into law and accused Democratic challenger Mark Taylor of failing to show leadership on the issue.