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Governor gets illegals bill
Sponsor acknowledges long road ahead

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/29/06
The Georgia General Assembly's attempt to confront illegal immigration won final legislative approval Tuesday. But anyone expecting quick results will be disappointed.

Even the author of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act has stressed that his bill will not solve most Georgians' complaints about people who are in the country illegally.

"It took 30 years to get here, and we're not going to solve it overnight," said state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), who wrote the 13-page bill. "This is a multiyear process."

The measure, Senate Bill 529, won final approval Tuesday in the Georgia House

119-49 in an anticlimactic, procedural vote. Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to sign the bill into law but has not indicated when.

Many of the things the bill does address will not be dealt with for more than a year at the earliest. And some key provisions will not kick in until near the end of the decade.

The bill requires government agencies to verify the legal status of any adult applying for taxpayer-provided benefits. But the bill exempts things like prenatal care and treatment for communicable diseases.

And the bill did not even attempt to deal with what are estimated to be the largest costs: emergency medical care for illegal immigrants or the ability of their children to attend public schools. Those taxpayer-supported services have been guaranteed by the federal courts.

'This is the art of politics'

Major provisions of the bill are aimed at employers who hire illegal immigrants. The measure attempts to guarantee that employees of companies that hold public contracts hire only workers who are legally in the country, beginning July 1, 2007, for large companies. The provision for the smallest employers would not be triggered until July 1, 2009.

A centerpiece of the legislation, a provision that would attempt to make private employers hire only legal workers, would not kick in until the 2008 tax year. That means enforcement would not come until 2009.

Rogers said he wanted an earlier trigger date, but powerful farming and business interests weighed in with legislators in their districts. The message was clear: Activate this part of the proposal too soon and it won't pass.

"I would have lobbied for a much earlier date," Rogers said. "But this is the art of politics, and I'd rather have something rather than nothing."

The bill is expected to have little if any impact on the massive cash economy in which many illegal immigrants work. A landscaper who pays illegal immigrants in cash and does not attempt to claim their wages as a business expense on his state taxes would not be affected.

"I don't know how to solve that part of the problem," Rogers said as the bill neared final passage. The bill also does little to address the massive problem of bogus documents, which many illegal immigrants buy to make them appear legal. Rogers has bemoaned the lack of any viable solution to that problem, but said it has to be addressed to get a real handle on illegal immigration.

Earlier this week, lawmakers deleted a section of the bill that would have imposed a 5 percent fee for illegal immigrants wiring money out of the country, because they feared it could not withstand legal scrutiny.

Proponents say the legislation is needed because the federal government has failed to secure the borders, allowing waves of illegal immigrants to flood Georgia — estimates range from 250,000 to 800,000. Supporters of a crackdown say they have overburdened the state's taxpayer-supported services while paying few taxes.

Critics say those undocumented workers underpin many industries and take jobs Americans refuse to do. They view Rogers' bill as a misguided effort that has created fear and confusion in the immigrant community.

"It's unfortunate that the state thinks that they need to weigh in on immigration, particularly when it's a federal issue and the U.S. Senate is poised to act on this issue," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved a bill that would create a foreign guest worker program and put millions of illegal immigrants on track toward permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.

Georgia officials say they are acting because the federal government has failed to address the issue over the past decade. Polls show that more than 80 percent of Georgians want state lawmakers to deal with the issue, a powerful motivator in an election year when all 236 legislative seats are up for grabs.

"I'm not going to sit around here and wait for Congress or the Supreme Court or anyone else," House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) said following Tuesday's vote. "We've taken the lead on this issue."

Similar measures in U.S.

Georgia is not alone. The National Conference on State Legislatures reported last month that legislators in 42 states had introduced more than 360 bills related to immigration.

"I am very relieved that the Georgia Legislature has listened to the 82 percent of Georgians who demanded that something be done here to begin to address the illegal immigration crisis," said D.A. King, an illegal immigration opponent from Cobb County. "Many people will now see the true determination of the illegal alien lobby who will spend a lot of money challenging this in federal court."

Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for the Atlanta office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said SB 529 is potentially unconstitutional because it pre-empts federal law. MALDEF, which has challenged similar measures in other states, is considering a lawsuit if SB 529 is signed into law, she said.

Staff writer Ann Hardie and Knight Ridder Newspapers contributed to this article.