Local legislators meet, discuss key issues
County lawmakers interested in impact of illegal immigrants

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett legislators expressed concerns over the impact of illegal immigrants on the community Monday during a day-long conference to prepare for the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

During many of the sessions, which ranged from meetings with school officials to hospital, county government and public safety leaders, legislators asked about the costs or other problems associated with noncitizens.

"We're stewards of taxpayer money, whether it's education or health care or DFACS (Division of Family and Children Services)," Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill said. "I think it is an issue."

While Gwinnett Medical Center CEO Phil Wolfe said the percentage of indigent patients the hospital sees has not greatly increased, Sheriff Butch Conway said the majority of Hispanic inmates in the jail are illegal. About 300 have been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials this year.

Infectious diseases are also surging in Gwinnett, at least in part as a result by the number of illegals, health department officials said. In fact, the tuberculosis patient detained in jail when he refused treatment was scheduled to be deported Sunday.

While the legislators were curious about the effects of the growing illegal population, agency officials had other concerns to pitch to legislators:

' Wolfe asked for support in the center's bid for an open heart program.

' Conway wants help in passing a dogfighting bill and increasing fees for serving civil papers.

' Health department officials asked for improved funding, since a current formula places Gwinnett as the second lowest county per capita.

' Gwinnett's government is looking for solutions in water planning and transportation funding, and commissioners want the ability to force rental property owners to designate an agent for quality of life complaints.

Officials also asked for a second referendum on a redevelopment tool that failed in a countywide vote in 2006 but passed in nine cities this fall.

For the second time, judges and public safety officials asked for a state law allowing misdemeanor violators to be given a citation instead of taken to jail.

Conway said that would relieve jail overcrowding, and Police Chief Charles Walters said it would allow cops to stay out in the streets.

Illegal immigrants would not be eligible for the citations, Magistrate Judge Warren Davis said.

District Attorney Danny Porter had harsh words for the state's indigent defense program. While the county runs its own program, which provides attorneys to the poor in most cases, underfunding for the state program to defend death penalty cases has caused long delays, in part because of the Brian Nichols case in Fulton County.

He called the program's inception "a plot to get rid of the death penalty," while Judge Billy Ray said judges fear cases will be turned over on appeal because of speedy trial statutes.

In light of the recent ruling throwing out a strict law on where sex offenders can reside, Porter suggested a classification of sex offenders to restrict the most dangerous predators from living near schools and churches.

Porter said 10 local cases were dismissed as a result of the ruling.