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A proposed bill in Georgia could lead to a crackdown on all immigrants, some fear

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Republican lawmakers in Georgia are advancing a bill that would require police to help identify undocumented immigrants and detain them for deportation. The proposal comes after the death of a Georgia nursing student whom police say was killed by an undocumented Venezuelan man. WABE's Emily Wu Pearson says advocates worry the measure will lead to racial profiling and a crackdown on all immigrants.

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JESSE PETREA: We have never seen a time like this. We have the greatest border crisis in our nation's history.

EMILY WU PEARSON, BYLINE: Georgia Republican Representative Jesse Petrea is laying the case for new immigration legislation.

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PETREA: In Georgia, the people of this state, the people we represent, are expecting us to do something. And I think this is a good way to do just that.

WU PEARSON: He's talking about a bill that would require local law enforcement to take on some of the responsibilities of federal immigration enforcement, mainly to identify, arrest and detain undocumented immigrants. The bill gained momentum after a Venezuelan migrant was arrested in the killing of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student in Athens, Ga. Democrats like Representative Pedro Marin say the bill endorses racial profiling.

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PEDRO MARIN: This bill will force human beings to live in fear and burden local governments and law enforcement officers by expanding their responsibilities without a penny of state funding.

WU PEARSON: The proposal is similar to a Texas measure currently blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia's doesn't allow police to proactively arrest people they suspect are immigrants. Instead, it would require them to check immigration status during encounters. Republicans say this will bolster public safety, but immigrant advocates in the state say that's not true. And research shows that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than others. Jerry Gonzalez is the CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

JERRY GONZALEZ: It's not about making Georgians safer. The issue is about using opportunistic situation to target wholesale an immigrant and Latino community. And that's really divisive and is dangerous politics that they're playing.

WU PEARSON: Immigrant rights advocates in Georgia say the bill is motivated by the upcoming presidential election. Two of the most populous counties in Georgia recently stopped requiring law enforcement to work closely with federal immigration officers, and multiple advocacy groups have held events across metro Atlanta condemning the legislation. Ben Williams is with the Cobb County branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

BEN WILLIAMS: Bashing immigrants now, bashing descendants of slaves at an earlier time is a tried and unfortunately true approach to keeping people divided.

WU PEARSON: But Republicans in Georgia insist they're addressing immigration in a meaningful way. Republican Representative Houston Gaines' district includes Athens, where Laken Riley was killed.

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HOUSTON GAINES: Fixing policy in the face of unspeakable tragedy is not politics. It's doing the right thing to ensure something like this never occurs again.

WU PEARSON: More than a dozen advocacy groups are collecting signatures in a petition asking lawmakers to reject the bill. In the meantime, the legislation still has to be heard by Georgia's full Senate and approved by the governor before it can become law. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wu Pearson in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Emily Wu Pearson, WABE