Senate ratifies limits on illegals Bill would deny benefits, punish employers, but foes call it mean-spirited

By Jim Tharpe, Carlos Campos, Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 9, 2006

The most ambitious crackdown on illegal immigration ever attempted by the Georgia Legislature cruised to easy approval in the Senate on Wednesday, even as opponents derided it as a mean-spirited political ploy that will accomplish little.

Senators capped a low-key, two-hour debate with a 40-13 vote in favor of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, also known as Senate Bill 529, which now moves to the House.

Several dozen Hispanic laborers were among those who packed the Senate public gallery Wednesday to watch the debate on the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act.

Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), who sponsored the legislation, told his colleagues: "I wish the federal government had protected our borders, but they have failed."

The bill seeks to ensure that illegal immigrants do not receive taxpayer-provided benefits to which they are not entitled, prevent employers from claiming wages paid to undocumented workers as a tax deduction and require law enforcement officials to notify federal immigration authorities when they have arrested an illegal immigrant.

Proponents argue the bill will level the playing field for businesses and make Georgia less appealing to immigrants who break the law to enter the United States.

Critics counter it is a ham-handed effort by a state trying to assume duties the Constitution assigns to the federal government.

"Georgia voters need to look behind the curtain and see this is not going to do anything to curb illegal immigration," Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "It's only going to spread fear in the immigrant community, and it's going to hurt business."

Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Atlanta office, told about 100 people at a morning Capitol rally that the bill was "unfair, unjust and inequitable." The group will likely file a court challenge if the bill becomes law, she said.

Several dozen Hispanic laborers some wearing paint-spattered pants, cowboy hats and ball caps converged on the Capitol to watch the debate on television in hallways and the Senate public gallery. Others, not able to enter the Capitol because they could not show photo identification, gathered outside to await the outcome.

During Wednesday's debate, Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) acknowledged the contributions of immigrants to America. But he said a massive influx of illegal immigrants in recent years has burdened the state's schools, prisons and health care system.

"America wants to export a higher standard of living to other people, not import a lower standard of living to ours," he said.

Johnson said Georgia had the seventh-largest illegal immigrant population in the United States, estimated at between 250,000 and 800,000. He noted that last year Medicaid expenditures for emergency medical care for illegal immigrants in Georgia topped $100 million.

"Our heart has no limit, but our pocketbook does," he said.

Sen. Sam Zamarripa (D-Atlanta), chairman of Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, complained the bill "criminalizes workers and businesses."

"It creates a class of people who are separate and unequal," he said.

Zamarripa was one of 13 Democrats who voted against the bill. Seven Democrats voted yes, while all Republicans present supported it.

Polls show that more than 80 percent of Georgians want the election-year Legislature to confront illegal immigration.

D.A. King of Cobb County, founder and president of the Dustin Inman Society, a grass-roots organization that advocates a crackdown, praised the bill's passage.

"It's a good day for Georgia; it's a bad day for the massive, profiteering illegal alien lobby," King said.

After the vote, about 50 Hispanic men milled around outside on the Capitol steps, trying to figure out what had just happened inside.

The men, speaking in Spanish, told a reporter that they were illegal immigrants who build homes, maintain lawns and process chickens in Georgia. Many said they were not aware of the legislation pending before the Senate, having just found out about it Wednesday on Latino radio stations.

The men said taxes were withheld from their paychecks and insisted they did not take advantage of taxpayer-provided services such as health care.

"They say we're a burden ... but we pay taxes," said Victor Calvillo of Forest Park. "We do their dirty jobs."

"Thanks to our cheap labor, your homes are less expensive," said Norberto Macias of Lawrenceville. "A home costs $200,000 here. If it was built by American labor, they would cost $400,000."

Inside the Capitol, Christian Aguilera of Cobb County, a legal resident from Argentina, watched the debate on television in a hallway. He helped translate some of the discussion for other Hispanic men.

When asked what he was feeling, Aguilera replied: "Shame for the people who voted for this."

The bill now moves to the House, where officials said it could be considered next week.

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