AJC – Georgia businesses express caution about crackdown on illegal immigration | ajc.com

Georgia businesses express caution about crackdown on illegal immigration  | ajc.com

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia industries are now weighing in on tough new legislation aimed at illegal immigration here, urging lawmakers to tread cautiously so they won’t do irreparable damage to the state’s economy.

In testifying before a Senate subcommittee Monday, representatives from the state’s agricultural and commercial construction industries singled out provisions in Senate Bill 40 that would require certain businesses to use E-Verify to make sure newly hired employees are eligible to work in this country.

Critics say E-Verify, a federal program, has accuracy problems and can be burdensome for businesses. A coalition of businesses and immigrant rights groups is suing to stop a similar law in Arizona that requires all businesses to use E-Verify, arguing that it is unconstitutional.

Federal officials, meanwhile, say they are improving the free E-Verify program’s accuracy. It automatically confirms 98 percent of employees as being eligible to work in the United States, a federal report says.

In all, the subcommittee heard Monday from about six speakers, all of whom were critical of the legislation.

Before the nearly two-hour-long hearing began, the bill’s sponsor called the legislation “a work in progress” and said revisions were on the way. Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, said he intended to meet with the business groups and others as he “redefines and tightens up the language” in the bill.

“The bill that you have before you is not the bill that we will probably ultimately come out with,” Murphy told a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

The subcommittee chairman — Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton — said he planned to hold a few more hearings on the legislation, with the next one occurring this week.

Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, was among those who spoke to the Senate subcommittee Monday. Tolar underscored the importance of agriculture in Georgia’s economy, saying it is a $68.8 billion industry.

“When I read this bill and we talk about requirements for e-verification, I see a shrinking of Georgia’s agricultural economy,” Tolar said of Senate Bill 40. “Are we setting ourselves up to turn the tables on our economy instead of to grow our economy?”

While Murphy was crafting his legislation last year, the Georgia Farm Bureau — which represents nearly 400,000 families — declared illegal immigration “is a federal issue, not a state or local issue.”

A spokesman for Georgia’s commercial construction industry sounded the same theme at Monday’s hearing, saying the issue is “best addressed by Congress.”

“We would just urge you to be very cautious as you move forward and not put business in harm’s way while trying to address a real problem,” said Mark Woodall, director of governmental affairs for the Georgia branch of Associated General Contractors of America, which represents commercial construction companies.

Murphy said he is sensitive about the impact that legislation could have on businesses.

Regarding the E-Verify requirement in his bill, he highlighted how his legislation exempts businesses that participate in certain federal programs that allow foreign workers to legally come to the United States and temporarily work in numerous fields, including the agricultural industry. Critics of those programs, however, say they can be expensive and that smaller businesses don’t have the resources to participate in them.

“Do we want immigration reform or do we not want immigration reform?” Murphy said in an interview after the hearing. “They are going to have to figure out a way to make sure the employees they are hiring — even for seasonal work — are here legally. And there is a way to do it. It is just going to be uncomfortable for them to do it.”

Some critics had other concerns Monday.

Similar to Arizona’s tough new law, Murphy’s bill would require police to investigate the immigration status of certain people they reasonably suspect of being in the country illegally. It also would authorize police to arrest them if they are in the country illegally and transport them to a federal jail.

Francis Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference — which serves as the voice of the state’s Catholic bishops — said the conference is concerned about racial profiling stemming from Murphy’s legislation, saying a provision in the bill aimed at preventing that needs to be toughened.

What’s next

  • The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee plans to hold its second hearing on similar legislation, House Bill 87, starting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
  • Another hearing will be held this week on Senate Bill 40.
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