Georgia politicians are all about praising God — in their public, if not private lives, anyway.
But if you take a look at House Bill 87 from a faith perspective, it has one positive aspect: HB 87 isn't as bad as a very similar anti-immigrant law proposed in Texas. The Lone Star State's "papers, please" law, while burdening small businesses and just about everyone else with enforcing draconian measures against immigrants, exempts wealthy homeowners from penalties when they hire undocumented workers as maids, gardeners and servants.
Yes, that's hypocrisy. A drywall subcontractor has to check his employee's immigration status. A wealthy rancher need not bother himself with such tedious tasks.
But have no fear that the Peach State will be outdone by Texans. In the Georgia General Assembly's continuing substitution of phony issues — such as HB 87's onslaught against immigrants — in lieu of addressing the state's critical education, jobs, transportation, environment and other needs, we have an ample supply of hypocrisy and governmental malpractice.
The criticisms against HB 87 are numerous: The bill usurps what is clearly a federal responsibility and prerogative. It's been crafted, along with similar bills in other states, to produce lawsuits that will inflame voters and act as "wedge" issues in the 2012 elections, as were the "marriage protection" laws and other anti-gay issues in recent years. It requires immigrants to carry "papers" at all times so that police officers can check their status — but even a lifelong citizen who left his wallet at home could be detained if a police officer suspects ("You say your name is Gonzalez?") he is an alien. Thus, as with totalitarian states, we are all reduced to carrying "papers" at all times to prevent being ensnared in a Kafkaesque scenario. We must prove innocence rather than the state prove guilt.
But, as a man of faith and a Southerner, one of the bill's most disturbing aspects to me are the echoes of Jim Crow. For two generations, it has not been fashionable politics in the South to be overtly racist, but that doesn't mean racism has disappeared. Noting the hysterical rants by radio talk hosts, politicians and anti-immigrant activists — including labeling Hispanic immigrants as "invaders" and "cockroaches" — the Southern Poverty Law Center cited FBI statistics to show that hate crimes against Latinos increased 35 percent in a recent three-year period. Despite perfunctory denials by its authors, HB 87 is a law predicated on the South's long tradition of codified racial discrimination.
The threat I see is more direct than the awful rebirth of politicized racism in the South. As written, the bill could put innocent and well-meaning people behind bars. If, for example, a minister assisted a distressed person who appears to be an alien (which, you can read between the lines of the bill as being Hispanic), and takes that person to a shelter or hospital, the minister would be committing a misdemeanor. If he gave eight or more undocumented aliens a ride in a church bus — for almost any reason other than taking them to the police — he could be charged with a felony, with penalties as high as five years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Elsewhere in Georgia law, there are exemptions granted to churches for some activities, but it's not at all clear those exemptions are included in HB 87. Thus, many people acting in the best traditions of all faiths must worry about criminal penalties and expensive litigation in doing good works.
The law bans "harboring," "transporting" and "inducing" or "enticing" illegal aliens.
Would a paramedic who takes an injured woman to the hospital be deemed a criminal if it's determined she is "illegal?" How about a family counselor who is sought out by a victim of domestic abuse? If a preacher's sermon states that we should give succor to the outcast and alien among us, has she or he "enticed" undocumented workers to come here? Under HB 87, claiming, "I didn't know this person wasn't documented" isn't good enough. Rather, the burden is on the minister or caregiver to demand "papers" of someone they think might be undocumented.
Georgia's legislators are frequently — especially in election years — agitated by anything having to do with homosexuals. The lawmakers often allude to God, although Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality. Yet, the New Testament scriptures include 24 verses about showing mercy to those who are weaker, 19 verses about helping strangers and 128 verses commanding us to aid the poor. HB 87 ignores the clear emphasis of Jesus' teachings at the same time that Bible-wielding lawmakers attempt to kidnap Christ on issues about which he was silent. (Can you imagine Jesus asking, "Before I cure your blindness, do you have papers proving you're an Israelite?"
There's no doubt that our nation must find a solution to immigration issues. What we don't need are police-state laws that criminalize acts to help our fellow men and women, acts commanded us by our religious beliefs.
John F. Sugg is the former group senior editor of Creative Loafing Inc. He is now a policy and media consultant.
NOTE: This is a longer version of the John Sugg column that appeared in this week's print edition.