Cobb County to join voluntary immigration enforcement program

ATLANTA — A suburban Atlanta county is on the verge of becoming the first local government in Georgia to join a voluntary federal immigration enforcement program that aims to make sure all employees are in the country legally and eligible to work.

Cobb County Commission members plan to sign an agreement Tuesday with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in the IMAGE program.

Though nearly 300 businesses nationwide have joined the recently revamped program, only a handful of municipalities across the country have done so.

Several municipal governments have turned out for the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers information and training sessions, and ICE said it expects to see more of them sign up for the program, said Brock Nicholson, the head of the agency’s Atlanta field office.

“It benefits them like it does any corporation or business,” he said. “It helps them work towards ensuring that our workforce is a legal workforce.”

Federal officials say the program can reduce the employment of illegal immigrants and the use of fake identification documents.

Cobb County has previously taken a tough approach on illegal immigration. Its sheriff’s department is one of four in the state that participate in a local-federal partnership that allows specially trained local deputies to enforce federal immigration law.

County Commissioner Bob Ott, who pushed for the county to join the program, said this isn’t about getting people deported.

“It’s all about jobs for the folks in Georgia and Cobb County,” he said. “It really comes down to just making sure that the limited number of jobs that are out there are going to the people that are entitled to have them.”

To participate, employers must meet several requirements: enroll in the federal E-Verify program; submit to an ICE audit of their I-9 forms that new employees complete and related documents; establish a written hiring and employment verification policy that includes a yearly internal audit; and sign a partnership agreement with ICE.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia has generally opposed state-level legislation that places the burden of verifying employment eligibility on local governments, but associate legislative director Todd Edwards said the association doesn’t oppose local governments taking such action.

Georgia law already requires public employers, including local governments, and their contractors to verify the legal work status of their employees using the E-Verify database.

Contractors must provide sworn statements to the government saying they have run the checks.

But Cobb County has had problems in the past. Some workers on the construction of a new county courthouse in 2010 turned out to be illegal immigrants. It was determined that a subcontractor wasn’t checking workers’ eligibility as required.

While county participation in the new program would not have caught that problem, Ott says his goal is for the county to do business only with program-certified contractors.

The fulfillment of that goal is likely a long way off. Fewer than 300 companies nationwide are currently certified or have signed agreements with ICE to go through the certification process.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” Ott said. “But the message it sends out is the county is going to be serious about making sure that we’re going to try to get the jobs to people that are entitled to have them.”

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