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Will new immigration law work

State law goes into effect this month

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POSTED: July 26, 2007 5:02 a.m.
More than a year after passing what many consider the toughest state legislation concerning illegal immigration, Georgia lawmakers continue to debate how effective the bill will be in handling the state's growing illegal immigrant population.
Senate Bill 529, the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, which places restrictions on taxpayer-funded services and requires certain employers to verify the citizenship status of new hires, went into effect July 1.
The bill was overwhelmingly approved in both the Georgia House and Senate during the 2006 legislative session when many legislators — facing a November election — were feeling the pressure from voters who wanted a quick fix from the state for a national problem.
“There’s been increasing frustration over the inability to stop illegal immigration in this country and the frustration stems from the costs to taxpayers for healthcare, education and social services for people who aren't in this country legally,” Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said. “And while Georgia doesn’t control the country’s borders, we control our state.”
To cut some of the increasing costs to taxpayers, SB 529 requires every adult applying for state-administered public benefits — food stamps and Medicaid, for example — to provide a valid passport, birth certificate or other documentation showing proof of U.S. citizenship prior to being approved for assistance. It also eliminates access to non-emergency healthcare services for adults who are not legal citizens.
Some critics say the new guidelines create an unnecessary burden for state agencies and disadvantaged legal citizens, who typically do not have such identification readily available. Supporters argue the rules are needed because the state does not have enough money to spend on those who are not eligible for the services.
“The federal government requires us to see the folks who show up at the emergency rooms, but beyond that we have limited those benefits to legal residents,” Georgia Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) said. “We don’t have enough funding for social services for our legal residents, much less those who are illegal.”
But cutting services to illegal immigrants is not the answer, according to one lawmaker who does not believe they are to blame for the financial strain on state and federal social services.
“I heard that same argument when the Irish started coming because of the Potato Famine. That’s not a new argument,” state Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) said. “What’s putting the strain on social services is over $400 billion spent in Iraq.”
The representative, who voted against what he called “election year, knee-jerk legislation designed to satisfy the anger of people and not solve the problem,” added SB 529 does not realistically deal with illegals currently in the state and unfairly targets Hispanics.
“I don’t want legislation that makes people feel good by punishing somebody. I want legislation that addresses the problem,” Williams said. “Let’s not set out to keep a certain nationality out. Let’s be fair to everybody.”
But Johnson said the measure is far from being “anti-Hispanic.”
“The Hispanics in this state are hardworking, pro-family, religious ... they’re just the type of people that have helped build America from our creation,” he said. “The issue is illegal immigrants who come across the borders. If this number of people were coming from Canada, I think you’d still have the same concerns that we have as those coming from the Mexican border.”
Noting provisions in the bill requiring public employers and contractors with more than 500 employees to verify citizenship through the free federal Basic Pilot Program and stiffer penalties for businesses that employ undocumented workers, Johnson said the bill also targets the business community, not just illegal immigrants.
With lawmakers from other states and immigrants rights groups around the country keeping a close eye on how the new law takes shape in Georgia, all three legislators agree the final word on illegal immigration will depend on how the federal government handles the most common entryway into the country.
“The border is the issue for everybody and rightly it should be and it’s what the federal government should be fixing, not just for immigration, but for national security reasons,” Sen. Williams said. “I hope Congress will eventually get their act together and pass a bill that deals with the border because that is an issue states cannot deal with.”
 

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