Opponents of the bill protest outside the Capitol in Atlanta. Immigrant… (David Goldman / Associated…)
Reporting from Atlanta — Following Arizona's lead, the Georgia Legislature on Thursday passed a strict measure that would empower police to check the immigration status of "criminal" suspects and force many businesses to do the same with potential employees.
The bill passed in the waning hours of the legislative session despite critics' outcries. Immigrant advocates threatened a state boycott if it became law, and Georgia's powerful agricultural industry warned, among other things, that federal guest worker programs alone could not provide enough laborers to meet farmers' needs.
Now the measure heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who campaigned last year on the promise of implementing an Arizona-style law in a state with, according to one 2009 estimate, 480,000 illegal immigrants — about 20,000 more than Arizona.
Since his election, however, Deal has warned that immigration laws should not place an "undue burden" on employers, raising concerns among foes of illegal immigration that he was wobbling.
A Deal spokesman declined to comment late Thursday on the governor's plans for the bill.
Whether or not it is enacted, Georgia's legislation underscores the increasingly disparate strategies that states are invoking in lieu of a comprehensive federal plan to deal with illegal immigration.
On Monday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's order striking down parts of the controversial Arizona law, known as SB 1070, which was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last year. Among the rejected sections was a provision requiring police to check the immigration status of people they lawfully stop whom they also suspect to be illegal immigrants.
Some states, including Florida, are considering significant immigration bills, but others, including Nebraska and Colorado, have rejected such bills recently. Utah passed immigration-control legislation last month but softened its effects by also passing a law that creates "guest worker" ID cards for undocumented immigrants.
And just this week, Maryland's General Assembly passed a bill that would grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants (as California does). Maryland's governor was expected to sign it. Georgia is one of several states that denies in-state tuition to illegal immigrant residents.
In a provision with rough similarities to the most contentious part of the Arizona law, the Georgia bill gives police the authority to check a suspect's immigration status if the suspect is unable to produce a valid ID and if the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect has committed a "criminal offense." If the person is verified as an illegal immigrant, police can detain that person or notify federal authorities.
Charles Kuck, a prominent Atlanta immigration attorney, said the way the bill is written, "criminal offenses" could be as minor as traffic violations.
Kuck, a Republican and outspoken critic of the legislation, said there was some question as to whether this provision gave police any more power than they already have. But the bigger problem, he said, was with "the message that it sends — this bill says, 'Immigrants, do not come to Georgia.... You're gonna have to show us your papers when you come.' "
He scoffed at another section prohibiting police from considering "race, color or national origin" when enforcing the bill.
"Let me ask you a question," Kuck said. "Do you think any white people are going be taken in for an immigration background check if they forgot their wallet at home?"
Among other things, the bill outlaws the use of fake IDs to secure employment and the transporting or harboring of illegal immigrants while knowingly committing another crime.
The biggest sticking point proved to be the provision that all but the smallest companies use the federal system called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires.
Critics from the farm lobby said E-Verify was not totally accurate, and put employers at risk of lawsuits if they erroneously denied a legal resident a job. The bill's supporters characterized that as overblown rhetoric from an industry addicted to cheap labor.
An earlier Arizona law, passed in 2007, requires all employers to use E-Verify and dissolves businesses that repeatedly hire illegal immigrants. That law, too, has been challenged on grounds that it usurps federal authority. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December.
If Georgia's bill becomes law, it too is likely to wind up in court. But Peter Spiro, a Temple University law professor, said its fate may hinge on whether Arizona's laws pass constitutional muster.
But for the time being, fans of the Georgia bill were heartened by their achievement Thursday.
"We're a law-abiding state," said state Sen. Earl "Buddy" Carter, a Republican from Pooler. "And we want people to abide by the laws."