Gov. Nathan Deal signed one of the nation’s toughest immigration enforcement measures into law Friday, thrusting Georgia to the forefront of this country's thorny debate over illegal immigration and triggering immediate threats of court challenges.
Georgia is now one of only three states to adopt this type of immigration law as efforts to get comprehensive immigration legislation through Congress have failed. Officials in Arizona and Utah have also enacted tough laws targeting illegal immigration, complaining the federal government has not secured the nation's borders. But federal judges have halted both of those states' laws amid complaints that they are unconstitutional.
Starting July 1 under Georgia’s House Bill 87, police will be empowered to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. The measure -- which is partly patterned after Arizona's law -- also sets new hiring requirements for employers and penalizes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants here.
Deal, who campaigned for governor last year on bringing an Arizona-style law to Georgia, called his signature on HB 87 a historic moment.
"While I believe immigration is an issue that ... should be addressed at the federal level," he told reporters at a state Capitol news conference, "this legislation I believe is a responsible step forward in the absence of federal action."
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Deal and other supporters of HB 87 have hailed it as a victory for taxpayers who have borne the cost of illegal immigration in Georgia. A recent estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center puts the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia at 425,000, the seventh-highest among the states. Those illegal immigrants, supporters of HB 87 say, are taking jobs from state residents and burdening Georgia’s public schools, hospitals and jails.
Local opponents of the measure said Friday that they have been working with some national organizations in drafting a lawsuit to challenge the measure in Atlanta's federal district court, arguing Georgia is overstepping its bounds.
“We look forward to stopping this unconstitutional law from ever taking effect,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Kuck and other opponents are hoping the federal Justice Department will join the fight and sue to block Georgia’s law as it has in Arizona. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Friday that she had no comment.
Last year, a federal judge put some of the most controversial parts of Arizona’s measure on hold after the Obama administration argued they were pre-empted by federal law. A federal appeals court recently upheld that judge’s decision. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced Monday that she is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
President Barack Obama waded into the debate over illegal immigration in Georgia in a televised interview last month, calling HB 87 a “mistake.”
“We can't have 50 different immigration laws around the country,” the president said. “Arizona tried this, and a federal court already struck them down."
Deal expressed confidence Friday, saying Georgia's legislation "went through several iterations."
"Thanks to the diligence and hard work of the General Assembly, I believe the final product avoids many of the pitfalls that have been alleged to exist in Arizona's legislation," said Deal, who leaves this weekend for an economic development trip to Europe.
Many other states have considered adopting an Arizona-type law. But Utah is the only other state to do so. On Tuesday, a federal judge halted that law, citing how it is similar to the Arizona legislation, Senate Bill 1070.
Georgia’s measure, meanwhile, has drawn stiff opposition from the state’s agricultural, landscaping, restaurant and tourism industries in recent weeks. These groups fear the law will damage the state’s economy by scaring away migrant workers and conventioneers.
For example, the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau went on record last month against HB 87 over concerns that it could hurt the region's $10 billion tourism industry. One group -- the U.S. Human Rights Network -- has already announced it will cancel plans to hold its annual conference in Atlanta because of HB 87. Opponents of the measure are seeking to organize more such boycotts like those Arizona has experienced since it mounted its crackdown on illegal immigration.
HB 87's sponsor -- Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City -- addressed concerns from Georgia's business sectors Friday after Deal signed the bill.
"To the extent that there is concern out there in the business community, just know we understand how important business is to our state," Ramsey said. "Georgia is going to continue to be a business-friendly state. HB 87, though, represents our responsibility to watch the taxpayers' bottom line just as the business community vigilantly guards their bottom line."
Supporters of HB 87 say its most important feature is the one that targets the hiring of illegal immigrants. Many immigrants illegally enter the country to find work here. Under Georgia’s law, many employers will be required to start using a federal program called E-Verify to confirm their newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States.
Arizona has a similar E-Verify law. A coalition of businesses and immigrant rights groups is suing to stop Arizona's law, arguing it is unconstitutional. The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
About two dozen opponents of HB 87 gathered outside of Deal's office Friday, shouting "Shame on you" and "Undocumented and unafraid." Dozens more demonstrated outside the state Capitol, carrying signs proclaiming "R.I.P. Southern Hospitality" and "Immigrant Rights are Human Rights."
“This action is not only an insult to the Latino community and other immigrants, but is also an exercise in cheap political pandering that will cost our state dearly,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.
Others praised Deal’s decision.
“House Bill 87 is good legislation and will provide law enforcement in Georgia with another tool to perform their jobs in an effective and efficient manner,” Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren said.
Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this article.
When provisions of Georgia's House Bill 87 will take effect:
- Local and state police will be empowered to arrest illegal immigrants and take them to state and federal jails.
- People who use fake identification to get a job in Georgia could face up to 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
- People who -- while committing another crime -- knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourage them to come to Georgia could face penalties. First-time offenders would face imprisonment for up to 12 months and up to $1,000 in fines.
- A seven-member Immigration Enforcement Review Board will be established to investigate complaints about local and state government officials not enforcing state immigration-related laws.
- Government officials who violate state laws requiring cities, counties and state government agencies to use E-Verify could face fines up to $10,000 and removal from office.
- The state Agriculture Department will be directed to study the possibility of creating Georgia's own guest-worker program. Some Georgia employers have complained the federal government's guest-worker program is too burdensome and expensive.
- State and local government agencies must start requiring people who apply for public benefits -- such as food stamps, housing assistance and business licenses -- to provide at least one “secure and verifiable” document, which could be a state or federally issued form of identification. Consular matriculation cards will not be accepted. The state attorney general’s office is required to post a list of acceptable documents on its website by Aug. 1.
- Georgia businesses will be required to use the federal E-Verify program to determine whether their new hires are eligible to work legally in the United States. Businesses with 500 or more employees must start complying with this provision Jan. 1. Businesses with 100 or more employees but fewer than 500 must start complying with this provision July 1, 2012. This requirement applies to businesses with between 11 and 99 employees starting July 1, 2013. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees are exempt.