The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Georgia’s House on Tuesday rejected the Senate’s immigration enforcement legislation and is now offering a more stringent substitute that requires many private businesses to confirm their new hires are eligible to work in the United States.
Brant Sanderlin, AJC About 200 demonstrators protested Georgia House Bill 87 outside the Capitol on March 3.
By a vote of 115 to 59, the House approved the 26-page substitute to House Bill 87. That substitute requires private businesses with more than 10 employees to use a federal work authorization program called E-Verify. The Senate stripped a similar provision out of the bill after nearly three hours of debate and several votes on amendments Monday evening.
The sponsor of HB 87 — Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City – said the E-Verify requirement is one of the most important provisions of his bill because many illegal immigrants come to Georgia to find work.
“The Senate… took out many of the provisions that we worked very hard on as part of the comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011,” Ramsey told the House moments before its vote. “They made some curious changes at best. What this amendment does is it restores the well-thought-out, well-reasoned legislation that we passed several weeks ago out of the House.”
The bill now goes back to the Senate, which could agree to the newly revised legislation or object to it. If the Senate objects, it could form a committee with the House to hash out their differences. But time is running out. Thursday is the deadline for bills to pass during this legislative session.
Republican Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming, who is sponsoring similar legislation, predicted a motion will be made today for the Senate to agree to the House substitute. But Murphy said the outcome of such a vote is uncertain, especially after Monday’s night’s lengthy Senate debate.
“I’m not sure that will pass. I can’t predict this body after yesterday,” Murphy said, noting the many amendments the Senate weighed Monday.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, spoke in favor of the E-Verify requirement before the House vote Tuesday and predicted the two chambers will appoint a committee to work out their differences. Senators predicted the same outcome Monday night.
“The House feels good about the legislation we passed here several weeks ago,” Ralston said. “We have been looking this morning at the result of what the Senate did, which I think really brings into question whether they are serious about immigration reform… A conference committee does appear to be likely at this point.”
“I don’t think any of us in the House want to do anything that is going to unduly burden small business here in this state,” he added. “By the same token, we want to make sure that what we do pass has credibility and that people know it is meaningful legislation that ensures we are going to be a nation of laws.”
Ralston and Ramsey also indicated they are optimistic the Legislature can pass some form of immigration enforcement legislation even though time is running out in this year’s legislative session.
“We have a lot of hours left today and tomorrow,” Ralston said. “Absolutely.”
This week, dozens of Atlanta area religious, charity and nonprofit leaders sent a letter to legislators, warning about the possible “unintended consequences” of the legislation. The letter says the bill’s penalties for transporting or harboring illegal immigrants could hurt the needy. Among the people who signed the letter are representatives from MUST Ministries, Covenant House Georgia and the Anti-Defamation League.
“By requiring our leaders, staff, volunteers and congregants to filter all services through the lens of immigration status in order to avoid felony criminal charges, these laws will serve as an insurmountable barrier in meeting the needs of Georgia’s most vulnerable,” the letter says.
The Senate amended those provisions Monday night to say people cannot be punished for transporting or harboring illegal immigrants unless they are suspected of simultaneously committing a felony offense. And the House substitute now exempts people providing “privately funded social services” from the penalty for transporting illegal immigrants.
Also on Tuesday, the House scrapped a provision in the bill that would have empowered people to sue local and state government officials who fail to enforce state immigration-related laws. Critics said that provision could lead to frivolous lawsuits against cash-strapped cities and counties. The bill would now create a seven-member Immigration Enforcement Review Board that would investigate such complaints.
“We don’t want our state and local governments defending meritless suits,” Ramsey told the House. “Court litigation is very expensive.”