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Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act

June 2006
Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act

Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act:

New Bill Targets Illegal Immigrants

With dozens of states rushing to address the issue of immigration in light of Congressional inaction, no state has passed more sweeping measures than Georgia. The measures go beyond just restricting access to specific benefits or cracking down on fake employment or identity documents. The bill, known as the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, was signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue on April 17 and will begin to take effect on July 1, 2007, with various provisions taking effect over the next several years.

The new law requires (i) Georgia employers to use a federal database to verify that their workers are legal. (ii) Recipients of most state benefits, including welfare and Medicaid, must prove they are in the country legally, although some emergency services are exempt. (iii) Workers who cannot provide a Social Security number or other taxpayer identification will be required to pay a 6 percent state withholding tax, taken from their paychecks. (iv) Jailers must inform the federal authorities if anyone incarcerated is in the country illegally, and the local authorities are specifically authorized to seek training to enforce federal immigration laws. And a new criminal offense, human trafficking, has been added to the books to crack down on those who bring in large groups of immigrants.

No other state had gone so far as Georgia in trying to restrict illegal immigrant benefits and rights since Proposition 187 in California (passed in 1994 and ruled unconstitutional four years later) and Proposition 200 in Arizona. Both measures denied many social services to illegal immigrants. There are other bills in legislatures around the country that are somewhat comprehensive, but nothing as comprehensive as Georgia's.

This came about, the bill's author said, because Republican leaders in Georgia decided that public support was growing for such an initiative. "We decided that the best thing to do was to take a lot of ideas and put them together in one bill," said State Senator Chip Rogers, a Republican representing some of Atlanta's far northern suburbs, who wrote the new law.

Everyone has a theory about why Georgia produced such a comprehensive bill. "You have to start with the fact that we have a very conservative Republican Legislature and a conservative Republican governor," Mr. Rogers said. "And we are the state with the second fastest-growing immigrant population." State Senator Zamarripa of Atlanta, an opponent of the new law, said there was something more insidious at work: a coalition of Republicans eager to exploit a fresh-edge issue in the November elections and anti-immigrant groups hungry for a success to build upon. "In my opinion, the national anti-immigrant groups, the nativist organizations, basically picked Georgia as a place where they could try to devolve immigration," he said. "They needed a state they could point to, and now they have one."

No one can say for sure how many illegal immigrants live and work in Georgia. Estimates run from a quarter of a million to many hundreds of thousands more. What is known is that they are prevalent in certain industries, like agriculture, construction, poultry processing and carpet mills. Nationally, of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, 78 percent come from Latin America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The next largest undocumented population comes from Asia, with 13 percent.

What surprised many of those on both sides of the issue was how silent the state's business leaders were during the debate, even as national business groups had spoken against Washington legislation focused on employers of illegal workers. Senator Rogers said this was partly a result of supporters of the bill reaching out to those who employed illegal immigrants in Georgia and shaping the bill to meet their objections. Even at the 11th hour, he said, changes were made so that some of the enforcement provisions deemed most onerous by business owners would not take effect for several years, giving them time to prepare.

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