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Why I'm suing Georgia over immigration law

By Paul W. Bridges, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Bridges, mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, has joined civil suit against new immigration law
  • He says law could tear local economy and family structure apart as people live in fear
  • He says law makes helping, driving undocumented in community a criminal offense
  • Bridges: Law is un-American, unconstitutional, extreme and incursion on privacy

Editor's note: Paul Bridges is the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, and a member of a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations to prevent Georgia's new immigration enforcement law, House Bill 87, from going into effect July 1.

(CNN) -- Many are surprised to learn that a conservative Republican mayor like me is involved in a class-action civil-rights lawsuit against my state. And yet, I'm proud to participate in this challenge to Georgia's harsh "papers please" law, which runs counter to America's greatest values and threatens to run my town's economy to the ground.

HB87, which was signed last month by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, would authorize Georgia police to demand proof of citizenship from criminal suspects not carrying an approved form of identification and would also impose criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly harbors or transports an undocumented immigrant.

This law strikes fear in all skilled laborers and anyone associated with them. It will allow officers untrained in immigration issues to detain and investigate anyone they choose. It threatens to tear families apart -- citizen spouses and children will risk permanent separation from undocumented loved ones; grandparents will lose their grandchildren if a family feels forced to leave Georgia.

The people who are challenging this law come from all walks of life, but we all believe that we must fight this broad attack on our basic freedoms and local economies.

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Though the law hasn't yet taken effect, its effect can be seen in the farms across southern Georgia. In Uvalda and in neighboring towns, it's not uncommon to see farmers struggling to find enough hands to pick the last of their Vidalia onion, squash and berry crops.

Local businesses will soon be deprived of reliable revenue provided by the workers -- both with and without papers -- who contribute to our economy. Many farmers in southern Georgia fear that this picture will look much bleaker if the law takes effect on July 1 as scheduled.

A farming couple in Graham is sleepless with worry about not being able to repay the federal loan to start their berry business. They fear they won't have workers to pick their berries, a job machines can't do.

I ran for mayor of Uvalda in 2009 because I wanted to see my town become a fairer and more prosperous place. With only 600 people in our town, we know one another pretty well. We give rides to our friends and don't ask for their papers. During harvest season, we open our homes to those who work in the fields. Several farmers provide housing for workers. Even family of friends have stayed in my own home during blueberry season.

Under Georgia's new law, those simple, neighborly activities could become criminal acts. If I fail to use my turn signal or speed while taking fellow parishioners to church, and I incur a traffic violation with an undocumented person in the van, then I could end up with a criminal penalty. If I don't check the papers of friends who stay with my family, I might be charged with harboring an undocumented person.

This shocking governmental intrusion on one's private activities is why Republicans like me are fighting to keep this heinous law off Georgia's books. Other Republicans, like Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have understood this issue; even former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue sees the problem. I don't feel alone in this stance.

Furthermore, the law imposes an unfunded mandate that will mean a significant burden on every town's resources. Rather than focusing on their mission to protect and serve, our police officers will now be forced to rent space to jail anyone caught working or living in Uvalda without papers.

In other words, we'll take someone who had previously been contributing to our economy and pay to house him in a jail far from the community. No one knows how long it might take to process the prisoner and then to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This isn't the fiscal conservatism my party is supposed to promote.

Worse, the men and women who have friends or family members who are undocumented will be less likely to call the police as witnesses or victims of crime -- and that makes all of us less safe.

Simply put, the Georgia law will strip my town of its economic livelihood and deny those living here of their right to drive with their friends, host members of their family or engage in other daily activities without government intrusion. Any American who values liberty, privacy and prosperity should fight this unnecessary, unconstitutional and extremist law.

I know families leaving Georgia -- a state they have called home for 15 years or more -- rather than break up their families.

One Latino father, who was born in Texas, explained to me last week that his family lives in fear of what happens if he is arrested and charged with transporting an illegal alien -- his wife. He said that his family cannot call 911 if an emergency occurs at their home. His extended family members are affected, too. These are real people in anguish.

Although those fighting this law have been painted as left-of-center, I'll stand proudly with them on Monday to ask the court to recognize that this law goes against the values my Republican Party often pledges to protect. Uvalda, like towns across Georgia, has too much to lose for me to stay out of this fight.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul W. Bridges

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