The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is supposed to release a new database to the public next week. It’s a collection of information on immigrants and foreign nationals in the state with criminal records.
But the GBI doesn’t plan to do it. The reason? The Department of Homeland Security has told them that making the database would break federal law.
The GBI was ordered to publish the data under the “Protect Georgia Act,” which Governor Nathan Deal signed in May. The new law calls for posting information online about people without U.S. citizenship who were released from federal custody within Georgia’s borders.
The problem is that federal law doesn’t allow any of this information to go public whatsoever. DHS cited a law on “information regarding detainees” that says no one with access to DHS information “shall disclose or otherwise permit to be made public the name of, or other information relating to, such detainee.”
The Protect Georgia Act has a provision saying to publish the information “to the extent permitted by federal law.” Because of that, the law itself is going unchallenged – it’s just that the “extent permitted” is not at all right now.
Rep. Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah) says that he’s “supportive” of the databases being blocked, if it’s because of this provision. He claims that local sheriffs offices don’t have access to the federal Law Enforcement Notification System, or LENS, a database of foreign nationals with prior felonies who weren’t deported for various reasons.
But GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles says that sheriff’s offices can already subscribe to the LENS program if they want to. In fact, eight offices across the state are current subscribers.
Moreover, immigration lawyer Charles Kuck says that there’s no need for local sheriffs to access the LENS program directly: they automatically run names, birth dates and fingerprints of people they book through a DHS database. DHS then checks the data in programs like LENS, and can place a hold on individuals who show up. Kuck thinks that the bill was passed solely “because they saw it as a way to garner votes in a primary in couple of years.”
“The state legislature once again buys into the rhetoric from the anti-immigration zealots, and passes a law that literally will have no effect other than to make Georgia look like narrow-minded bigots,” Kuck said.
Petrea said he wrote the initial bill to grant local sheriffs access to LENS information. He also wanted to allow the public to see the data because “we have huge public safety issues in this country.”
“People do not realize that individuals who are not citizens, after serving their time, there’s kind of a common man mentality that those people are always deported. That is not the case,” Petrea said.
LENS isn’t the only database which the Protect Georgia Act tried to make public. There’s also the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which is a non-profit data network maintained by the states. However, Miles says that the information is still received from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so it will still be prohibited by federal laws.
Other parts of the law will be enacted on July 1 without any issues. The law updates the state’s definition of “domestic terrorism.” It includes mandatory minimum sentences, including five to 35-year sentences for destruction of property. Critics say that the law could be used to deter protesters. The law also updates the state’s list of biological weapons.
Miles says if the federal laws should change, GBI is standing by to go forward with the database, but that her organization won’t do anything “at this point in time.”
The database’s legal limbo comes after President Trump created a new office to help families that have suffered crimes committed by people believed to be in the United States illegally. The office lets victims sign up to receive updates about their alleged perpetrator’s status in immigration custody, and provides additional criminal history in some cases.