‘Sanctuary cities’ could face legal liability for injuries caused by immigrants

By: - March 5, 2020 7:10 am

Rep. Jesse Petrea told English-and Spanish-language media about his proposal to create new legal liabilities for “sanctuary cities” at a press conference Wednesday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s so-called sanctuary cities could be subject to legal damages if someone in their jurisdiction is harmed by an undocumented immigrant, under proposed legislation.

The bill’s author is Rep. Jesse Petrea, a Savannah Republican who filed legislation in past years to ensure Georgia isn’t home to sanctuary cities, which are banned in Georgia. If the new proposal becomes law, cities and counties that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities could be liable for damages if a person in the country illegally caused an injury or death.

“Unfortunately, we have policies and practices in this state today, jurisdictions … that refuse to work with ICE, therefore, they are breaking the current sanctuary policy,” Petrea said. “What this bill does is create for the first time a civil action where if an individual is injured, harmed or murdered by the release of an individual who then creates a violent crime, it gives that individual recourse against that local jurisdiction that willfully chose to not enforce our nation’s immigration laws.”

Rep. Philip Singleton, a Sharpsburg Republican elected last fall who supports the bill, said a 2018 study found seven communities that would qualify as sanctuary communities, including the cities of Atlanta, Clarkston and Decatur, and Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

Petrea presented the proposal at a House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Hearing Wednesday afternoon where over a dozen people testified.

Bills like Petrea’s are hateful and unamerican, said Isabel Otero with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a frequent critic of legislation that singles out undocumented immigrants.

“The SPLC Action Fund has seen these bills across the country,” she said. “They are the result of an aggressive agenda by anti-immigrant hate groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform. These types of unconstitutional bills become laws that serve as a tool for discrimination because that is their intended purpose.”

Petrea said his bill is about public safety, not immigration, and at least one committee member agreed.

Rep. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican, compared the proposed legislation to a malpractice suit against a doctor whose negligence leads to a patient’s death.

“If there’s a clear, professional duty to prevent a death, someone clearly ignores that duty and there’s a death that comes as a result of that, there should be accountability,” Setzler said. “I understand that your bill is only doing that.”

Another committee member, Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said U.S. law cannot mandate what local governments do to comply with federal immigration policy. He also said the bill would put local governments in a situation where, if they complied with ICE, they could be liable if ICE put out a wrongful detainer, and if they did not comply with ICE, they could be held liable under Petrea’s law.

“We’re talking about a context where people making public safety decisions that are discretionary are going to be subjected to liability that is actually not normal in our system,” McLaurin said.

“This isn’t a negligent slip and fall case where a restaurant owner doesn’t put salt on ice, that’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is people making decisions that don’t owe individual duties because they’re governmental actors, and we’re assigning an individualized tort duty to a public safety setting where it’s completely inapplicable.”

The committee took testimony, but did not vote. Speaking to the Georgia Recorder after the hearing, Petrea said he is not sure what’s next for the latest version of his “sanctuary” legislation.

“Our goal today was we wanted to have a hearing first, just to get the word out,” he said. “We want to hear from both sides, we want people to weigh in, we want to be careful, diligent, let everybody see this new language, this new substitute. Let’s get feedback, like we did today, and then we’ll see.”

Petrea also declined to predict whether the bill would move to the Senate before Crossover Day, March 12, the last day legislation has a smooth path to passage.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.