Thu., September 29, 2011 4:27pm (EDT)

Immigration Panel Begins Work
By Jeanne Bonner
Updated: 3 years ago

ATLANTA  —  
Groups who oppose Georgia's immigration law protested at the state Capitol Thursday morning shortly before the immigration panel met for the first time. The panel will be reviewing complaints from citizens who allege state and local governments aren't following the immigration law.
Groups who oppose Georgia's immigration law protested at the state Capitol Thursday morning shortly before the immigration panel met for the first time. The panel will be reviewing complaints from citizens who allege state and local governments aren't following the immigration law.
Georgia’s new immigration panel met in Atlanta for the first time Thursday. The seven-member group will review complaints from registered citizens about how public agencies are enforcing the state’s immigration law.

The Immigration Enforcement Review Board began its work by electing Atlanta attorney Ben Vinson as the body’s chairman.

He says the law limits the board’s power. It has no staff and no budget. And it’ll primarily review complaints about whether state and local government through contracts are hiring illegal immigrants or giving them public benefits.

“This board will not handle complaints filed by a government against a business or a business against a business or an individual against a business or individuals against each other," he told the panel and the public. "We don’t have jurisdiction to handle those complaints.”

Vinson says the volunteer panel has only received one complaint since the law went into effect on July 1.

The law requires businesses with more than ten employees to use a federal database program called E-Verify to check if employees can work here legally.

State officials say it might be the only state law with a panel enforcing it.

And one Georgian who was near the state Capitol Thursday says that’s cause for concern. Kailinn Friar is from Lithia Springs.

“I liken it to racial profiling," she said, sitting on a bench in downtown Atlanta. "I don’t know how you would describe it but that’s how it seems to me. If no other law has that kind of effect where other people can blow the whistle, then that is problematic.”

The board consists of seven middle-aged white men, a fact that has drawn criticism because the law will largely affect Hispanic and Asian immigrants. One panelist, Phil Kent, says that shouldn’t be a concern for residents.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with seven black men who were for strict enforcement of our laws,” he said after the meeting adjourned.

Kent, himself, has also been a source of controversy. That’s because he's adamantly against amnesty for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. at a young age. And he's also been quoted calling Palestinian refugees “thugs.”

Kent brushed off the criticism, saying he's been a public figure for three decades and the comments are just part of civic debate.

The panel is still working out the kinks of how it will handle complaints. Vinson said if the panel receives "5,000 complaints" in the next few months, he may have to ask the state legislature to allot more money for enforcement.

Vinson and other panel members also said they need to help elected officials understand what's in the law and what enforcement powers the panel has.

Dallas Mayor Boyd Austin, who sits on the panel, said, "There's ambiguity not just with the public but also with the public agencies."

The law aims to punish only those public agencies that knowingly and willingly violate the law, not those entities that mistakenly commit an infraction.

A complaint form will eventually be on the Web site of the state's Department of Audits.