Georgia lawmakers pass illegal immigration crackdown

Complaining the federal government has failed to secure the nation’s borders, Georgia’s Legislature followed Arizona’s lead Thursday and approved an aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration.

The nation is watching Georgia, which is making the leap into a legal thicket Arizona jumped into last year.

Like Arizona’s laws -- which are fighting for survival in federal court -- House Bill 87 creates new requirements for many Georgia businesses to ensure new hires are eligible to work in the United States and empowers police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects.

Some business owners worry the crackdown will harm the state’s agricultural, landscaping and restaurant industries, which partly depend on migrant labor. But proponents of tougher immigration laws have long complained illegal immigrants are burdening the state’s public schools, jails and hospitals.

“It’s a great day for Georgia,” said Rep. Matt Ramsey, the Peachtree City Republican who authored the bill. “We think we have done our job that our constituents asked us to do to address the costs and the social consequences that have been visited upon our state by the federal government’s failure to secure our nation’s borders.”

By a 37 to 19 vote, Georgia's Senate amended and then adopted the bill. The House gave final approval to the legislation less than two hours before the session expired on a 112 to 59 vote. Now the bill goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature. The Republican governor campaigned last year on bringing an Arizona-style law to Georgia, but he has yet to take a position on HB 87.

Deal and state lawmakers came under intense pressure in recent weeks from business groups that lobbied against the proposed law.

Other opponents of the legislation, who worry it opens the door for racial profiling by law enforcement, have threatened to help organize economic boycotts targeting Georgia, if Deal signs the bill. Arizona has lost dozens of conventions since it mounted a similar crackdown last year.

Of particular concern to Georgia businesses is a requirement to use the federal E-Verify program. That program helps companies confirm whether their new hires are eligible to work in the United States. Some business owners say it will create red tape that will cost them time and money.

"We're coming out of [a] recession, and businesses are doing all they can do right now to stay afloat," said Jann Moore, senior director of public policy and education for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. "To turn around and put the responsibility of another policy on business is the wrong thing to do. The timing could not be worse."

Other Georgia business boosters said lawmakers in a final day compromise had addressed some of their concerns. The legislation, for example, now exempts businesses with 10 or fewer employees from the requirement to use E-Verify. It also gives businesses 30 days to correct any “good faith” violations before they face penalties for not complying with the E-Verify requirement.

"Small businesses won't be impacted as negatively as they would have been," said Joselyn Baker, spokeswoman for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. "It's a great step forward in making sure that Georgia's economy is able to continue to recover."

Georgia’s HB 87 would also:

• Empower local and state police to arrest illegal immigrants and transport them to state and federal jails;

• Punish people who use fake identification to get a job in Georgia with up to 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines;

• Penalize people who – while committing another crime -- knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourages them to come to Georgia. First-time offenders would face imprisonment for up to 12 months and up to $1,000 in fines;

• Establish a seven-member Immigration Enforcement Review Board to investigate complaints about local and state government officials not enforcing state immigration-related laws;

• Directs the state Agriculture Department 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.

Georgia is among 30 states that have considered new laws  targeting illegal immigration this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In all, 52 such bills have been introduced nationwide. About three quarters of them resemble Arizona's Senate Bill 1070. So far, 14 of these bills have failed, including measures in Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia. And three have passed, including Georgia’s legislation and two bills in Utah.

Some predict Georgia's bill will suffer the same fate as Arizona’s law . A federal judge put some of the most controversial provisions in Arizona’s law on hold last year after the Obama administration argued they are preempted by federal law. Arizona appealed that judge’s decision. But a federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision this week, keeping much of the law on hold pending the outcome of the federal government’s lawsuit.

Another Arizona law requires many private businesses to use E-Verify. A coalition of businesses and immigrant rights groups is suing to stop that law, arguing it is unconstitutional. The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ramsey said he worked on more than 16 drafts of the legislation, partly to protect it against court challenges. He said he has looked at similar laws from several states and has benefited from watching Arizona’s legal cases play out in the courts.

Opponents promised Thursday evening they would continue to push Deal to veto the bill.

"We are going to urge him to listen to the majority of everyday Georgians, who understand how bad this bill will be for Georgia," said Xochitl Bervera, who joined about 60 other people in demonstrating against HB 87 outside the state Capitol Thursday evening.

Does an Arizona-style immigration help or hurt Georgia?

Reaction from those who closely watched the debate on HB 87, which gives law enforcement the power to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and requires many Georgia businesses to ensure workers are eligible to work in the United States.

"These people are illegal and the state can't afford it any more. Now that you have this, it's not business as usual anymore ... From everything I've heard, we got pretty much what we wanted."

-- Bill Hudson, board member of the Georgia Tea Party and a retired dentist from Marietta.

"We know this bill is not going to create a single job. When has the General Assembly become so anti-economic development? If Sunday alcohol sales is what they hang their hat on for economic development, that's pretty sad."

-- Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. The council argued the bill would have the greatest impact on farmers who would be forced to buy new equipment to comply with the law

"They're using all of these services and not giving back into the system. It's ethically wrong and it's morally wrong. This will stop unscrupulous behavior."

-- Catherine Davis, legislative director for the Network of Politically Active Christians and a Stone Mountain resident. Davis supports provisions in the bill that allows law enforcement to arrest illegal immigrants and transport them to state and federal jails.

“I travel to Germany six times a year on economic development missions and I have also gone on economic development missions to other places in the world and I am absolutely sure it will harm our reputation. I have seen what the reaction was throughout the world to the law in Arizona. The world will react in same way to the law in Georgia.”

-- Teri A. Simmons, business recruiter at Atlanta-based law firm Arnall Golden Gregory, who thinks the immigration bill harms Georgia's international business reputation.

"It sounds like the immigration hawks kind of got what they wanted in the end. If it actually ends up being implemented, it's something of a victory. ... The Georgia law seems to have addressed the top-priority matters a state can deal with."

-- Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C. think-tank that supports tighter controls on immigration and advocates wider use of E-Verify.

"I still have serious concerns about putting another mandate on small employers."

-- Kyle Jackson, National Federation of Independent Business state director, discussing the impact of the E-Verify system on small businesses. The immigration bill passed by the General Asssembly requires businesses to use the federal program to verify new workers are eligible to work in the United States.