3/3 – AJC – House set to vote on major bill targeting illegal immigration | ajc.com

House set to vote on major bill targeting illegal immigration  | ajc.com

Georgia Politics 6:37 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, 2011

House set to vote on major bill targeting illegal immigration

By Jeremy Redmon

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Republican state lawmakers weren’t kidding last year when they vowed to take on illegal immigration in Georgia.

In recent months, they have introduced no fewer than eight bills seeking to crack down on a long list of problems tied to illegal immigrants.

And in the process, they have managed to rile a long list of constituencies, including the state’s agricultural, landscaping, commercial building and restaurant industries; groups representing hospitals and local government and school officials; civil and immigrant rights groups; and religious leaders.

Critics are hoping the weight of opposition will doom some of the legislation. Lawmakers have already softened some bills in the face of stout opposition.

Supporters argue that the state must act because the federal government has failed to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. They say illegal immigrants are burdening hospitals, public schools and jails and taking jobs from Georgians amid high unemployment.

Those supporters racked up a significant victory Monday when a key legislative panel passed a bill partly patterned after Arizona’s tough new law aimed at illegal immigration. House Bill 87 is scheduled for a vote on the House floor Thursday.

Among other things, HB 87 would require many businesses to use a free federal program called E-Verify to confirm that new employees are eligible to work in the U.S. Other bills would ban illegal immigrants from attending state colleges and collecting unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits. Another bill would require school and hospital officials to count the number of illegal immigrants they serve.

As one of several people who testified in support of HB 87, Jan Barton, a retired technical consultant from Marietta, addressed the range of groups that oppose the illegal immigration bills.

“Who do our legislators want to listen to, the citizens or the special-interest groups?” Barton said.

Opponents complain the measures could burden businesses with costly new regulations, deter immigrant workers from coming to Georgia and damage the state’s economy.

The Georgia Hospital Association, for example, opposes a provision in House Bill 296 that would require hospitals to report to the state how many of their patients are illegal immigrants. The bill would also require the hospitals to report what treatment these people received, the cost and dates of that treatment. and whether and how they paid for their care. That information would be published annually on the state Department of Community Health’s website.

Federal law, however, requires hospitals to treat all emergency room patients, regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay. A spokesman for the hospital association said his organization is concerned HB 296 could run afoul of that federal law.

“We feel like this is more of a policing function that hospitals really have no business being a part of,” GHA spokesman Kevin Bloye said.

The Georgia School Boards Association has raised similar concerns over another provision in HB 296 that would require school officials to count the number of illegal immigrants they serve. The state Board of Education’s rules prohibit school officials from inquiring about the legal status of students in accordance with a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That ruling says school districts must educate all children regardless of their immigration status.

In an interview this week, the bill’s sponsor said the identities of hospital patients will not be sent to the state.

“We must not lose sight of who we work for here. It’s the taxpayers. They have a right to know what it is costing to provide service to those who are here illegally,” said Republican Rep. Josh Clark of Buford.

Several bills would require many companies to start using the E-Verify program. Farmers and landscapers say it would cost them time and money to use the system. Some critics of E-Verify have caught the ear of Gov. Nathan Deal, saying they are worried about the system’s reliability and accuracy. Deal said he would investigate those concerns, adding he does not want to place an “undue burden” on employers.

“Mandating businesses to utilize the flawed E-Verify system puts another layer of bureaucracy on an already challenged workforce where jobs are hard to fill,” Bill Russell, president and CEO of Dacula-based Russell Landscape Group, wrote in a letter this week to state legislators.

Supporters say concerns about E-Verify’s reliability and accuracy are overblown. They point to how companies can legally employ temporary workers from other countries through federal guest worker programs, though Russell and other Georgia farmers say such programs can be cost-prohibitive.

“I don’t think anything in this legislation would result in an ‘undue burden’ being placed on employers,” said Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City, the sponsor of HB 87. “We know E-Verify is simple. It is easy. It is accurate.”

Some Georgia industries that rely on migrant workers argue that dealing with illegal immigration is the federal government’s responsibility, not the state’s.

“We support comprehensive immigration reform, but only at the federal level,” said Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, which represents the state’s $14.1 billion restaurant industry.

Voters indicated they felt differently last year in a poll commissioned by the Georgia Newspaper Partnership that showed a strong majority would support a state law similar to the one enacted in Arizona.

Last week, Republican Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming substantially watered down his legislation targeting illegal immigration. His Senate Bill 40 no longer includes certain penalties for private businesses that do not use E-Verify. Murphy said he consulted the state attorney general’s office and now has constitutional concerns over penalizing such businesses. Murphy, however, has added a provision that says some businesses would not be eligible for certain state tax breaks unless they use E-Verify or other federal work authorization programs, or screen employees’ driver’s licenses or other state-issued identification.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB 40 Wednesday.

Murphy indicated he and other lawmakers are in a darned-if-they-do-and-darned-if-they-don’t situation concerning illegal immigration.

“We,” he said, “are always going to rile somebody.”

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