Georgia GOP gubernatorial candidates duke it out over illegal immigration

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidates all favor a crackdown on illegal immigration, but they can’t agree on how far to take it.

The Department of Homeland Security estimated that Georgia’s illegal immigrant population totaled 480,000 in 2009, the sixth-highest in the nation. That figure is 20,000 higher than the reported number of illegal immigrants living in Arizona, where the fight over illegal immigration has gained national attention.

Eric Johnson, Georgia’s state senate pro tempore and one of the seven GOP candidates qualified to run for the state’s top executive position, rolled out his plan for enforcing illegal immigration laws on Friday. Johnson’s plan takes enforcement further than that of any other candidate, mandating the collection of citizenship data from K-12 schools and hospital emergency rooms.

“What it’s doing is requiring a lot more information that hasn’t been available,” said Johnson spokesperson Christian Dixon.

U.S. Congressman Nathan Deal, one of Johnson’s opponents, said that Johnson’s plan is little more than a political ploy that will never work in practice because it interferes with so many other records and privacy laws.

“Sen. Johnson is a day late and a dollar too short to the party,” said Deal spokesperson Brian Robinson. “What he is proposing is illegal under U.S. law.”

Deal’s plan in some ways mirrors Arizona’s recent immigration reform law by leaving the issue to local and state police.

“This is a law enforcement issue, and it should be carried out by law enforcement,” Robinson said.

Deal and Johnson both trail Georgia’s Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, according to recent polls. Oxendine has remained quiet on a host of issues — including immigration — but has said he’d support an Arizona-style law in Georgia.

“John believes that Georgia is for American citizens and good, honest immigrants who want to come here and go about the process legally,” Oxendine campaign manager Stephen Puetz said in an e-mail. “Illegal immigration is a huge problem nationally and impacts us directly in Georgia. If the federal government isn’t going to secure the borders and enforce their own laws, then as Governor, John will uphold all laws, including illegal immigration.”

Georgia’s immigration debate heated up in May because of poster-child illegal immigrant Jessica Colotl, a 21-year-old Kennesaw State University student who was released from an illegal immigration detention center in Alabama after a concerted effort by university officials.

A May 18 InsiderAdvantage WSB-TV poll found that 46 percent of Republican primary voters supported deporting Colotl, while 16 percent opposed efforts to deport her. The poll found that 38 percent of voters weren’t aware of the story.

Even so, Colotl has launched a new front in the illegal immigration battle: how to handle illegal immigration at colleges and universities, particularly state-run schools. Some propose expelling and deporting any and all illegal immigrants, while others advocate allowing them to continue attending school but charging out-of-state tuition rates, even if they have fulfilled established residency requirements in Georgia.

Johnson also takes the harshest stance on illegal immigration in higher education. He recommends that state colleges and universities deny admission to any prospective students who can’t supply documentation of their citizenship or legal residence status.

Oxendine’s campaign has been clearer on illegal immigration in higher education.

“John [Oxendine] fully supports verifying the immigration status of students upon enrollment and the expulsion of illegal immigrants who are currently in our higher education system,” Puetz said.

On illegal immigration in higher education, Deal follows the same principle: enforce federal law.

“It is federal law that noncitizens must pay out of state tuition,” Robinson said. “He [Deal] believes federal law should be enforced. Those students should be in this country legally, of course.”

Georgia’s primary elections will be held on July 20. If none of the GOP candidates takes 50 percent-plus-one vote, the race will head to a runoff on August 10.