3/2 – AJC – Georgia can treat, but not cure, immigration issues | Kyle Wingfield

Georgia can treat, but not cure, immigration issues | Kyle Wingfield.

There are a number of natural tensions for Republican lawmakers in Georgia as they try to curb illegal immigration. Here are two of the stronger ones, and ways legislators might think about them while considering various immigration bills:

1. The tension between federal responsibility and state problems.

The states — particularly those, like Georgia, that are not on the border — can do only so much to stanch illegal immigration. But they bear the lion’s share of the costs, from education to health care to law enforcement.

Add those facts to the usual political dynamics of courting a growing group of voters while trying to please — or at least not alienate — a base of support, and Washington’s inaction on immigration is easily explained. (Incidentally, this is one topic Congress might handle differently if U.S. senators were still appointed by, and answered to, state legislatures as they did before the 17th Amendment.)

Last year’s election campaign featured a lot of pledges to pass a law mirroring the one enacted in Arizona last year. Now-Gov. Nathan Deal and his Democratic opponent, Roy Barnes, both said they’d support such a measure. But today, one gets the distinct impression that Deal would prefer to sit on the issue until 2012.

The Obama administration promptly sued to overturn the Arizona law, and inviting a new lawsuit against Georgia would do precious little to bolster Arizona’s case. It would, however, likely consume precious state funds — and accomplish little if, as in Arizona, a judge were to put key parts of the law on hold while a lawsuit proceeded.

Better to let the courts settle the issue in Arizona and focus efforts here on ensuring that Georgia tax dollars don’t provide public benefits to illegal immigrants beyond what federal law requires (for example, k-12 education for their children).

2. The tension between businesses and activists.

A number of Georgia industries, from agriculture to textiles, have relied for years on immigrant labor, whether all of those immigrants were legal or not. So, it’s logical to think businesses could help identify illegal immigrants.

At the same time, the governor cautions against placing an “undue burden” on industry in asking it to make up for the federal government’s failings by verifying workers’ legality.

It’s hard to see how the state could enforce such a law without spending a great deal of resources to police employers. But what it could do is make the penalties for failure to maintain a legal workforce so great that companies wouldn’t want to risk being caught.

For example, the state could take away all tax credits, exemptions and deductions for any business found to have any illegal workers. This penalty might prove harsher than the ones now under consideration, particularly for big companies. And it would avoid the clumsy and arbitrary delineation between a misdemeanor harboring of illegals (seven or fewer) and a felony (eight or more).

However, a company found to have illegal workers would not be liable if it had used the federal E-Verify system to check those workers’ backgrounds.

A company would risk a harsher penalty if it knowingly hired illegals, or if it chose not to use E-Verify and its workers were found to be here illegally.

But any business confident in the legality of its workforce could choose to avoid the cost and hassle of using E-Verify.

In the meantime, it’s wise to create stiffer penalties for people with fake or forged immigration papers, as envisioned in Georgia’s HB 87. I’m told by businesspeople who use E-Verify that the system is not reliable at spotting such documents.

There are no perfect resolutions of these and other tensions. But there also are defective ones, born of frustration at symptoms that Georgia can treat — but cannot cure.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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