One doesn’t need to keep Sherlock Holmes on retainer to uncover a hot bill in the state Capitol.
If, as a hearing begins, a committee chairman announces that two overflow rooms with live Internet feeds have been made available, this is a clue.
Then, suppose the author of the bill under scrutiny confesses that, even though this is the public debut of his measure, he has already been through 16 drafts — and No. 17 should be ready by Tuesday. This is another clue.
After years of dancing around the edges of illegal immigration in Georgia, state lawmakers last week began circling the nub of the issue — the relationship between hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers and the people whose crops and businesses depend on the sweat of so many foreign brows.
Not a farmer, businessman, city, county, school system, cop or taxpayer will escape the consequences of the debate — never mind the Spanish-speaking strangers, and their children, in our midst.
Rival illegal immigration bills were set loose last week — one in the House and another in the Senate. The one thing the two measures have in common is an effort to penalize local government officials suspected of ignoring previous — and toothless — requirements passed by the Legislature banning illegal immigrants from public works projects.
SB 40, sponsored by state Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, would subject city, county and school system officials to fines up to $10,000 or jail terms up to 12 months. Or both.
But city and county officials are sweating bullets over HB 87, the work of state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City. His bill would empower citizen sentinels to file lawsuits against cities and counties they suspect of permitting illegal immigrant labor.
“You’re giving every citizen in Georgia an opportunity to put eyes on their local government,” Ramsey said, explaining Draft No. 16 to the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee and its overflow audience on Friday.
Georgia’s farmers are another sensitive spot. In December, the Georgia Farm Bureau announced its opposition to any immigration measure that “discriminates against the farm worker” and puts farmers at a disadvantage.
Murphy’s Senate bill would require all Georgia businesses to use a free federal computer registry to make sure all hires are legal U.S. residents — but it creates an exception intended for farmers.
Georgia’s agricultural industry gets no pass in Ramsey’s House bill. And farmers would do well to pay attention to the language used by the Fayette County lawmaker in Friday’s hearing. Ramsey spoke of the use of illegal immigrant labor as “indentured servitude” and “a current-day form of slavery” — phrases unlikely to serve as fertile ground for compromise.
Unlike the Senate bill, Ramsey’s measure also creates an entirely new class of crimes — somewhat along the familiar lines of the war on drugs.
Possession of one illegal immigrant — “knowingly” transporting, harboring or shielding the person — would be a misdemeanor. Possession of eight or more would mark you as a dealer, worthy of felony prosecution.
“We want to get at and treat more seriously the folks that are doing this for commercial profit,” Ramsey said, adding that the language of Draft No. 16 had been tightened to eliminate any fears that unsuspecting Greyhound bus drivers could be found culpable.
Those who listened to Ramsey’s line-by-line description of HB 87 included Charles Kuck, who described himself as the “token Republican” on the board of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, an organization opposed to any attempt by states to follow Arizona’s lead in the war on illegal immigration.
But Kuck is also the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Take that word “shield,” he said.
“If I’m a pastor and an alien goes to my church and I know he’s illegal — which happens all over Georgia — then I am guilty under this section,” Kuck said. Federal immigration law has an exception for churches, but HB 87 doesn’t. Not yet.
Then there’s the “harbor” word, which would seem to apply to landlords and apartment owners, Kuck said. Federal courts have ruled that attempts to bar illegal immigrants from rental properties violate this country’s fair-housing laws, he said.
Multiply Kuck by a hundred and you begin to understand the number of interests at stake — and why a thorough and honest airing of the illegal immigration issue has been so long in coming at the state Capitol. And may not have come yet.
Ramsey’s bill, at this early point, appears to be the measure most likely to survive legislative scrutiny. So far, it retains the controversial provision that requires police to investigate the residency status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally.
On Friday, there was much talk about the burdens posed by our unauthorized visitors — on hospitals, schools and law enforcement agencies.
But we have not yet discussed what a mandated sweeping up of illegal immigrants in Georgia will cost — in terms of housing the inmates and their families, the strain it might put on budget-thinned police ranks or what lies in store for those businesses and farms that quietly rely on illegal immigrant workers.
Perhaps that will come with Draft No. 17.
– By Jim Galloway, Political Insider