Ga., national GOP diverge on immigration issues

Georgia’s Republican state lawmakers are seeking to crack down further on illegal immigration even as many national GOP leaders are softening their stance.

National Republicans began recalibrating their positions after President Barack Obama won reelection last year with about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. Now a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is proposing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

Yet in Georgia, Republican legislators are seeking to expand on the stringent immigration law they enacted in 2011. They are weighing new legislation aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from getting a variety of public benefits, including state driver’s licenses and homestead tax exemptions.

The reason for the state-national disconnect is simple, said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University: Republicans have been tremendously successful in Georgia and are sticking with what has worked for them. The GOP dominates Georgia’s congressional delegation and controls the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state Legislature.

“If they are on a path to success, they don’t want to move in a different direction,” Black said. “That’s the usual way you do politics.”

But like the rest of the nation, Georgia is quickly becoming more diverse. So Republicans here could be taking risks by sticking with a hardliner approach to illegal immigration, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

Georgia’s Hispanic population, for example, has more than doubled since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics now represent 9 percent of the state’s population.

Georgia Republicans, Bullock said, are “concentrating on the short-term gains versus the long-term needs. Longer term, Georgia is going to become a majority-minority state.”

In 2011, the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed comprehensive legislation aimed at driving illegal immigrants out of the state. Supporters said it would help protect Georgia’s sovereignty and its taxpayer-funded resources. Critics called it divisive and unconstitutional.

Once the law passed, a coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups sued in federal court to scrap parts of it. Most sections survived; one that did not would have punished people who harbor or transport illegal immigrants in Georgia.

Now, people on both sides of the debate from 2011 are feeling a sense of déjà vu as the Legislature grapples with another round of immigration bills.

The measures that are at issue — one written by the House and one by the Senate — were originally introduced to fix some unintended consequences of the 2011 law. Both seek to clear massive backlogs in processing professional license renewals, problems stemming from the law’s requirement that applicants prove their legal status each time they renew.

But House members decided to try to do more with their bill, HB125. They added language aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from getting Georgia driver’s licenses and homestead tax exemptions.

Those elements soon ran into resistance. It turned out that the driver’s license provision would have put the state out of compliance with a federal anti-terrorism law, called the REAL ID Act. That’s because it would have let applicants submit copies of citizenship documents by mail, fax or online. The homestead exemption provision raised alarms among critics who foresaw delays in processing requests from thousands of Georgia taxpayers.

Wednesday, a Senate committee stripped the added provisions from the House bill . Thursday, a House committee responded by inserting them into the Senate’s bill, SB160 — after ensuring compliance with the REAL ID Act by requiring applicants for state licenses to show up in person and present original documents.

The different bills are likely headed to a smaller conference committee, where legislators from both chambers will seek a compromise.

Republican state Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City, who supports the House’s provisions, said the newly revised SB 160 would clarify and tighten parts of the immigration law he authored in 2011 and codify existing state practices involving driver’s licenses.

“We are just making sure that the laws that we have passed in the past are being implemented properly,” he said, “and the whole purpose of those laws was to protect taxpayer dollars.”

About two dozen activists demonstrated against the House provisions outside the state Capitol Thursday, waving signs stating “No More Anti-Immigration Laws” and “Stop Hate. Stop HB125.”

Appearing at the demonstration, state Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, joked about the disconnect between state and national Republicans over illegal immigration.

“What are these people going to be doing when the federal government does immigration reform?” he said. “They are going to be out of a job.”