Poll: Most Georgia voters want Arizona-style immigration law here

Most Georgia voters would support a state law similar to the one enacted in Arizona this year to crack down on illegal immigration, a new poll shows.

The poll commissioned by the Georgia Newspaper Partnership asked registered voters across the state whether they would support giving "state and local law enforcement the power to ask people already stopped for possible violations of the law to show proof they are in the country legally and then arrest those that could not provide such proof."

A large majority -- 68 percent -- said they would support doing so, while 24 percent said they would not. The rest were undecided.

Douglas Genge, a high school science teacher from Lawrenceville, was among those polled who said he would support bringing an Arizona-style law here.

“We need to enforce our laws. And if the federal government is not going to enforce our laws, then the state has the obligation to protect us,” he said. “They have broken the law coming into the country, so they need to be arrested for it. ... They are utilizing our health care system, our school system, our tax money to be here.”

Michael Smith, an insurance underwriter from Johns Creek, said he wouldn't support such a law in Georgia.

"It honestly just doesn't feel like that it is right or the American way," he said. "Plus, how do you even police a law like that without some type of racial profiling? I mean, do you not then stop a German person or an African person and say, ‘Hey, do you have your legal papers?' Again, the whole thing really doesn't sit well when you think about how America has been birthed and how we have always opened our doors as much as we can to individuals who seek a better life."

Illegal immigration is the subject of a long-running and heated debate in Georgia -- and a central theme in this year’s gubernatorial election. And all for good reason.

Georgia is actually home to more “unauthorized immigrants” than Arizona, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report. The report says 480,000 illegal immigrants were living in Georgia as of January of last year, while 460,000 were in Arizona. Georgia ranks sixth among states in these statistics, behind California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois, respectively. Arizona is seventh.

The issue attracted more attention in Georgia this year when state officials discovered Kennesaw State University had erroneously charged an illegal immigrant student in-state tuition when she should have been charged the out-of-state rate, which is about three times more expensive.

Critics say illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Georgians in the midst of a recession that has driven the state’s unemployment rate as high as 10.5 percent. They also complain illegal immigrants are burdening the state’s public school systems and emergency rooms. Supporters say immigrant workers are vital to the state’s agricultural industry and are boosting Georgia’s economy by spending their hard-earned money here. Both sides agree the nation’s immigration system is broken, but they disagree on how to fix it.

Republicans, men and white voters showed the strongest support for the Arizona law in this month’s newspaper poll. A majority of Democrats, independents and women who were surveyed for the poll said they also are in favor of the law, though in smaller numbers.

Walt Alexander, an air traffic controller from Kathleen in Middle Georgia, said he would support a tougher immigration law because existing laws are not being enforced.

“They’re lawbreakers,” he said. “There’s no difference in an illegal alien crossing our borders and getting into our country illegally than it is for somebody to go into a Wal-Mart and shoplift. The law is the law, and it needs to be enforced. The taxpayers are the ones who are suffering the consequences of the illegal aliens that are coming into this country. We’re paying the taxes on the health care for these folks who have not paid one dime into Social Security or to Medicaid or Medicare.”

Deborah Houston, an insurance broker from Brunswick, said she would support an Arizona-style law in Georgia.

"Obviously, the federal government isn't going to do anything," she said. "To them, it is too politically incorrect. And that is not how our country works. You are welcome, but you have to follow the rules. You can't just sneak over here and take advantage of everything that every American has worked for."

Not all Georgia women agree on this issue. For example, Shaye Gambrell, a church administrator from Athens, opposes stricter immigration enforcement.

"It's a waste of money," she said, "and I don't think it is something that can be done fairly without profiling."

As a single group, blacks registered the lowest support, with 47 percent in favor.

“It’s a bad idea because it’s stereotyping,” Joe Cystrunk of Macon said. “Being a black American, I mean, come on, that’s the last thing we need in Georgia.”

Cystrunk said enforcing immigration laws should be left to the federal government.

“For Arizona to jump the gun like that and not give [President Barack] Obama a chance is a slap in the face to him, but hopefully he can get it together and do something. They’ve got to do something," Cystrunk said. "I feel for the people of Arizona and Texas and any of the border states.”

Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate reacted to the poll differently this week.

“I understand the public’s frustration with it, but that doesn’t mean we need to pass unconstitutional provisions to make the public happy," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

D.A. King, president of the Georgia-based Dustin Inman Society, which advocates enforcement of American immigration and employment laws, said he was not surprised by the newspaper poll results that show support for the Arizona law.

“Most people,” King said, “realize the organized crime of illegal immigration is opposed by the huge majority of the American people.”

Staff writer Steve Visser and Rodney Manley of the Macon Telegraph and Blake Aued of the Athens Banner-Herald contributed to this article.