Georgia lawmakers welcome immigration plans, wary of details

A bipartisan push from the U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama is giving new life to calls to reform the immigration system.

But Georgia’s Republican members of Congress remain wary of a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and a heated debate will continue in a state with one of the country’s most strict immigration laws.

On Tuesday Obama traveled to Las Vegas to deliver his pitch. It was based on an outline similar to one announced Monday by eight senators led by Democrat Charles Schumer of New York and Republican John McCain of Arizona and including rising GOP star Marco Rubio of Florida.

The proposals would grant legal status to some illegal immigrants along with an opportunity to apply for citizenship. They must pay a fine and taxes, learn English, and wait behind those already are seeking citizenship.

“So that means it won’t be a quick process but it will be a fair process,” Obama said. “And it will lift these individuals out of the shadows.”

One touchy aspect will be how to combine calls for tougher border controls with measures to deal with those already here. The Senate proposal includes beefed-up border security that must be completed before any of the current immigrants on “probationary status” can earn a green card. Obama proposed more funding to border control and gradually instituting a national e-verify system for businesses, but did not require those steps before the citizenship steps.

Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said he is waiting to see a final result from the Senate working group.

“The broad structural points are pretty much on target, but you’ve got to get into the meat of the coconut and see what the policies are,” Isakson said in an interview. “They are going about it the right way.”

His GOP colleague Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in a statement that he wanted to see more detail on a guest-worker program, which is crucial to Georgia’s agricultural economy, as well as security.

“No comprehensive immigration proposal can be successful unless the border is secure,” Chambliss said. “This administration has backed away from many congressionally approved border security measures which must be adhered to if there is to be a positive outcome for any legislation.”

Among the Obama supporters who attended his Las Vegas speech was Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who said he was pleased there appears to be “a genuine desire to get this done soon.”

DeKalb County U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, who serves on the Judiciary Committee where such legislation will be considered, was similarly encouraged.

“It is paramount that our country creates a pathway to citizenship for outstanding young people, law-abiding immigrants and the next generation of innovators and job creators,” Johnson said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House to make immigration reform a reality.”

Heavy with conservative Republicans, the House will be difficult terrain for a new immigration law.

The same can be said of Georgia, where illegal immigration has been a hot-button issue in recent years when competition for jobs became fierce amid high unemployment.

Georgia has the ninth-largest population among states. But it ranked sixth in 2011 in the estimated number of illegal immigrants, 440,000, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Georgia lawmakers accuse the federal government of failing to secure the nation’s borders. At the same time, the Obama administration has set records for deportations. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the government expelled 409,849, the most in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s history. That is up 3 percent from the year before, when the previous record was set at 396,906.

In 2011 Georgia lawmakers passed legislation aimed at illegal immigrants. Among other things, the law, HB 87, allows local and state police to investigate the immigration status of people they suspect of state or federal crimes who cannot provide identification. The law also authorizes police to detain people found to be in the country illegally and take them to jail.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the legislative proposals the U.S. senators outlined Monday could make parts of Georgia’s statute “moot.” For example, Gonzalez pointed to the immigration status-check provision in Georgia’s law.

“Given the announcement of what is happening in Congress, that is going to give further pause to more law enforcement officials across the state,” Gonzalez said.

Phil Kent, a member of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said it is premature to say what impact the Senate proposals could have on Georgia’s statute since no legislation has been filed.

“I don’t know how Jerry can comment on anything because there is no bill,” said Kent, the national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, which supports deporting illegal immigrants. “A lot of what is in HB 87 mirrors federal law, and that is not going to change.”

Kent also blasted the Washington proposals.

“Many legalized illegals will sooner or later receive welfare, Obamacare and other benefits, further burdening taxpayers,” he said.

The Obama administration infuriated supporters of Georgia’s immigration law last year when it announced it was offering thousands of young illegal immigrants a two-year reprieve from deportation and granting them authorization to work in the United States. As of Jan. 17, 407,899 immigrants had applied for the reprieve – also called “deferred action” — nationwide. Among them were 13,147 from Georgia.

Blanca Munoz, 22, of Cobb County, received the reprieve in December. Her parents illegally brought her from Mexico to the United States when she was eight. The Pebblebrook High School graduate is studying business at Chattahoochee Technical College. She said the president’s speech gives her hope that she can one day become a U.S. citizen.

At the same time, she worries about the president’s plans to put in place a work authorization program. “It is going to put a lot of people out of jobs,” she said.

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