published Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Compliance with laws on reporting benefits low in Georgia

REQUIREMENTS UNDER STATE LAW

• Verification of Lawful Presence: All agencies or political subdivisions in Georgia, including departments, agencies, authorities, commissions or other governmental entities of the state or any subdivision of this state, that provide or administer public benefits are required by state law to verify the lawful presence of benefit recipients. This requirement has been in place since July 1, 2007.

• Public Benefits Reporting Requirements: All such agencies are required to file an annual report with the Department of Community Affairs no later than Jan. 1 of each year (new requirement resulting from House Bill 2) that identifies each public benefit administered by the agency or political subdivision and includes a list of each public benefit for which verification of lawful presence has not been received. The first reports are due no later than Jan. 1, 2011.

Source: Georgia Department of Community Affairs

BY THE NUMBERS

Registrations to the Department of Community Affairs by year:

• 2010 -- 244

• 2011 -- 151

• 2012 -- 35 to date

Source: Georgia Department of Community Affairs

Over the last five years, Georgia counties, cities and any other entities that provide public benefits such as adult education or business licenses have been required to comply with evolving state laws.

Those laws range from having to register with a federal program to verify the legal status of applicants, getting affidavits, asking for a photo ID and submitting various reports.

The result? Compliance is still much lower than expected.

"The compliance rate has not been stellar," said Jonathan Sharpe, manager of the office of research and surveys with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which developed the reporting database that government entities have to use.

"There's been a lot of confusion out there," he said.

Since 2010, when agencies had to begin registering with the Department of Community Affairs, only 430 have done so. Even fewer, 362, actually filed their mandated reports in 2010 and 2011 combined. The report is supposed to be filed annually.

There are 694 cities and counties in the state, but the law also applies to state departments, commissions, authorities and any other government agencies that provide certain public benefits. State officials couldn't say how many total entities have to comply with the law, but only seven state agencies have done so.

About 58 percent of all 159 counties and 37 percent of the state's 535 cities have registered and filed a report with the Department of Community Affairs.

Under House Bill 2, government entities must register with the Department of Community Affairs, list the public benefits provided and report those benefits for which they had "unverified applicants" -- meaning those for whom immigration status was not verified under the SAVE program.

SAVE -- Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements -- is a federal program that checks immigration status information using U.S. Department of Homeland Security databases.

Georgia's requirements were expanded in 2011 with the passage of the Arizona-inspired House Bill 87, which added penalty provisions and a requirement to ask for a valid identification in addition to the affidavit.

The bill also created the Immigration Enforcement Review Board to investigate governments or government employees accused of violating the law. The board's penalties can include revocation of local government status, loss of state-appropriated funds and a fine.

Local governments and agencies have made progress in signing up to use SAVE, but complying with the reporting part of these laws has been slower. From the end of August 2010, the number of agencies registered to use SAVE increased from 403 -- including 164 that were pending -- to 621 as of May 24.

All Georgia counties are now registered and about 80 percent of the cities.

"When you look at how many have signed up for SAVE, they are certainly on board with [the law], but it's learning the process of what reports are due that's taking a little bit of time to catch up," said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman with the Georgia Municipal Association, which represents 512 municipal governments in the state.

"One of the issues we've had all along is not with the spirit of this law, it's been more about the technicality of carrying it out," she added.

There are three different reports dealing with immigration status, public benefits and employment governments and agencies have to file each year to the Department of Community Affairs and to the Department of Audits.

Whitfield County uses SAVE but hasn't registered with the Department of Community Affairs and hasn't filed a report yet. County officials said it fell through the cracks when the task was assigned to an employee who left the county.

Whitfield County Attorney Robert Smalley said there have been a number of changes to state and federal law that local governments have to follow, so it can get confusing.

"It has been a little bit of a challenge but we've been trying to be as diligent as possible to keep up with them," he said.

And there are limits to the current reporting system of public benefits, as well.

Government entities only have to mark "yes" or "no" if they had unverified applicants, but they don't have to indicate how many weren't verified.

For instance, the Georgia Department of Insurance indicated that in 2011 it had unverified applicants in all of the benefits it provides --from authorizing commercial licenses to health benefits and registering a regulated business -- but it doesn't have to report how many times.

Between 2010 and 2011, of the 362 that have filed a report, 27 reported they've had unverified applicants.

"The law was frankly poorly written," said Sharpe, with the Department of Community Affairs. "They have to report by January 1, but there's is no definition as to what the reporting period is. It doesn't say you have to report for the year to date, for the month to date."

Georgia Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, who sponsored the bill was not reached for comment, but he has said the state is moving in the right direction.

D.A. King, a Georgia-based opponent of illegal immigration who credits himself with being the driver behind many of these new laws, said he will be filing complaints with the Immigration Enforcement Review Board if entities don't comply.

"On illegal immigration the law means very little even to people who administer counties and cities in the U.S., especially in Georgia, there's no fear of the law here," he said. "But that will change when complaints are followed and there are punishments meted out."

But counties are trying their best to comply, said Todd Edwards, associate legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

"I think counties are trying their best just to figure it all out, keeping it straight, sign up, register for these programs and at the same time submit all the various reports to the various state agencies," he said.

"I wouldn't think necessarily it was any willful noncompliance, it's just the sheer magnitude of responsibilities the state has dictated local governments with these illegal immigration reforms," he said.

And like the state, local governments are having to do more with less, he added.

Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@times freepress.com or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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