Debate turns to illegal immigration

This article was originally published in Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Feb. 21, 2006. 

Georgia's debate over illegal immigration begins today in the state Legislature as lawmakers take up one of the most contentious issues this session.

Those supporting a crack-down on illegal immigration as well as those opposing tougher laws are expected to address a state Senate committee during the first airing of Senate Bill 529, also known as the "Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act."

Authored by state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), the bill would use the state income tax code to penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants and would deny public benefits and services to adults illegally in the country.

Rogers and the bill's backers acknowledge the bill alone won't solve the problem and say it is the first step in a multi-year process to address illegal immigration.

Sen. Brian Kemp (R-Athens), who chairs the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee that will hear the bill, called illegal immigration a "burning issue" and predicted a quick path for SB 529 though the Legislature, which is halfway though the session.

"We're going to have a fair and open hearing," Kemp said. He noted that a lot of emotion surrounds the issue and vowed to conduct "orderly" hearings.

"If people come to the committee and can't do that, we'll have them removed," he said.

There are an estimated 250,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia. Supporters of get-tough legislation say They sap vital resources from legal residents and dodge most of the tax burden. Critics of the legislation say illegals underpin much of the economy and fill jobs Americans don't want.

Kemp, who is running for agriculture commissioner, acknowledged that illegal immigrants fill many jobs, especially in farming and home building.

"We've got to make sure we can have those workers legally to perform those job," he said. "We've got to make sure there's a legal way to document them."

Kemp said he understands people who come in search of work and a better life, but said many Georgians are "fed up" with illegal immigration.

Kemp, noting that public health care and education costs are rising, said it's "prudent" to rein in some of the costs associated with illegal immigrants. He acknowledged that there is no concrete data available on the cost of illegal immigrants.