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Our Views: Split decisions

Court rulings on immigration, water both can have key impact on state’s future

POSTED: July 3, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Two federal court rulings last week have had a major effect on Georgia's future, and our area's, on two key issues: immigration and water.

The first came Monday when U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash struck down sections of the state's new immigration law days before it was to take effect. He flagged as unconstitutional the portion that makes it a crime to knowingly transport illegal immigrants and another that authorizes local law enforcement to check the immigration status of any suspect.

Remaining in effect is the portion that will require businesses to verify their employees' legal status, but that will be phased in after the first of the year.

The state plans to appeal. Expect this law, and similar ones passed in several other states, to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court when it's all done.

As we've stated many times, this issue has become a circular firing squad of buck passing. The federal government has failed, for more than a decade, to effectively address illegal immigration by better enforcing current laws or passing new ones that secure the border and more efficiently document immigrants who want to work here.

Hard-liners in Congress have blocked any attempt at reform, even as both the Bush and Obama administrations have advocated comprehensive plans to address both key criteria.

As a result of this inaction, states have taken it upon themselves, passing tough laws that deal with the symptoms of illegal immigration but don't solve the root problem. Then when those laws are challenged, judges rule that immigration enforcement is a federal matter and should be handled by Congress, which refuses to do so.

It's understandable that state and local officials are frustrated by this. Yet Georgia legislators passed a law that has resulted in unintended consequences that need to be addressed. Lawmakers listed to constituents who don't want illegal residents in their communities, feeling they overburden schools and hospital emergency rooms. Yet they didn't listen to agricultural leaders warning they would be hurt by a law that drove off much of their workforce.

Even before the law would take effect, farmers in South Georgia have lost migrant workers to other states. To blunt this effect, Gov. Nathan Deal decreed that out-of-work Georgians on probation should be encouraged to fill those farm jobs.

Yet that is no solution at all. A middle-aged probationer laid off from an office job can't possibly pick onions as well as hardened field workers accustomed to toiling in the hot sun. At one such farm, all of the probation workers quit by midday.

The problem with Balkanized state laws is that they only serve to send illegal immigrants to greener pastures to find work. That has a negative effect on industries such as agriculture, construction and hospitality that have come to rely on their labor.

Other provisions of the law would further burden local law enforcement with immigration concerns when they should be focusing on keeping our streets safe from dangerous criminals.

Finding a way to document migrant laborers legally so they can work and pay taxes is in everyone's interest, if Congress could grow a spine and allow a supply of labor to meet a demand in the free market.

Then there is another key economic need: water. A ruling by a panel of federal judges Wednesday overturned the dreaded deadline set by Judge Paul Magnuson two years ago. It suspends his decree that Lake Lanier's supply of water to Gainesville, Forsyth County and much of metro Atlanta should be severely curtailed.

The decision returns the lake's fate to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, giving the agency a year to come up with a workable plan to control flows down the Chattahoochee River system to benefit everyone.

The decision is a relief to Georgia in the face of a draconian result, but shouldn't keep the state from pursing better water policies in all areas: conservation, better growth management and seeking other sources by building local reservoirs. Hall County plans to move forward with its plan for the Glades Reservoir, and should with more court action likely.

Georgia would be wise to continue negotiations with Florida and Alabama as well. Surely there is an equitable way to share the waterway for all concerned that will meet everyone's needs. The next drought is always lurking around the corner, bringing with it harsh conditions that no judge can save us from.

And, clearly, this isn't the end of the story. Alabama, which with Florida has been sparring with Georgia for water in the Chattahoochee River system for two decades, already has said it would appeal. We've seen how this issue can get bogged down in the courts, as it as been off and on for decades and through numerous cases and appeals.

This case, like the immigration law, is likely to wind up with the Supreme Court. It would be ideal if there were a more streamlined process that bypassed the lower courts' badminton game with these issues and let the high court rule on it, as it likely will eventually.

We don't know the ultimate outcome of either case, but final solutions will be welcome. Our state needs a ready supply of both water and manual labor to move forward and rebuild our sagging economy. Anything less will leave us high and dry while crops rot in the field.



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