Legislation takes shape that draws hard line on illegals

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/02/06
State benefits would be denied to illegal immigrants and Georgia employers would be required to verify workers' legal status under a draft bill that is expected to frame the legislative debate on the volatile issue.

State Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), the General Assembly's point man on illegal immigration, has drafted the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act. The proposal, reviewed Wednesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, combines elements of several of the dozen bills that had previously been filed at the state Capitol.

Rogers' proposal, a five-part bill he plans to file early next week, is expected to be the measure that legislators will debate on the topic.

"This is a very important issue to a lot of people and there are a million ideas out there about how to solve the problem," Rogers said in an interview. "I felt that rolling all of this into one bill gives us the opportunity to bring everybody together and debate these five parts of the immigration problem."

The Senate's leading lawmaker, Speaker Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), said through a spokeswoman that he is working with Rogers to refine the seven-page bill. Johnson supports the concepts behind it, aide Amanda Seals said.

Rogers' bill has already raised serious concerns in the Hispanic and business communities.

"This is a bill that affects everyone who enters into a relationship with someone who might be here illegally," said state Sen. Sam Zamarripa (D-Atlanta), chairman of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "I don't think anybody will support this if they understand it."

Rogers' new bill will touch off a long-anticipated, election-year debate on immigration under the Gold Dome.

Estimates on the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia vary from 250,000 to 800,000, and their impact on the state is also vigorously disputed. Critics say they sap vital resources from legal residents and state programs. Supporters argue they provide needed labor to major state industries.

In a December poll conducted by Zogby International, 82 percent of Georgians said they think it's important for the Legislature to address the illegal immigration issue. About 80 percent said they want employers who hire illegal workers to be punished.

Zamarripa said Rogers' bill is not the remedy. "The problem is, you can't solve immigration at the state level," he said.

Some business leaders have already expressed concerns about one key provision. It would require the state labor commissioner to develop a system under which every Georgia employer would verify whether employees are here legally.

The provision would go into effect in July 2007, but so far it carries no penalties for violators. Rogers said penalties would be determined once procedures for employment verification are established.

Ann Waters, communications coordinator for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has no formal position on the measure. "But we are, in general, opposed to businesses having to play police officer," she said.

In an interview last month, chamber President George Israel expressed concern about the idea. Israel said the federal government already sets forth the employment verification process and that Georgia companies work hard to follow it.

"I know there has been a lot of concern about a business having to be put in the position of policing immigration," Israel said. "If someone has papers that are not legitimate and they've been through the I-9 [verification] process ... then under federal law they are considered to have done due diligence."

Ed Phillips, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Georgia, acknowledged there is a problem with illegal immigration in the state. "But the problem is they're putting a job that belongs to federal immigration [officials] onto the backs of businesses," said Phillips, who has not reviewed the legislation.

Rogers and supporters of get-tough legislation say they are acting because the federal government has failed to do so. "This problem was created over 25 years by the federal government not enforcing our borders," Rogers said. "We in Georgia are not going to solve it overnight, but this is a good first step."

Zamarripa said Rogers might be creating more problems than he is solving. Zamarripa said he is especially concerned about one part of the proposal that would establish severe penalties for "human trafficking."

Rogers said the provision is aimed at professionals who charge illegal immigrants large sums of money to smuggle them into the United States and people who transport women across the border for prostitution.

But Zamarripa said the provision also could be used to prosecute anyone who transports an illegal immigrant for any purpose.