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Georgia passes immigration law

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • NEW: Georgia’s governor plans to sign law into law, his spokesman says
  • Georgia’s anti-illegal immigration law could be the nation’s most effective, supporters say
  • ACLU threatens lawsuit; other groups are planning boycotts

Atlanta (CNN) – Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal plans to sign legislation into law in what could be one of the toughest measures against illegal immigration in the country, his spokesman Brian Robinson said on Friday.

Unperturbed by threats of boycotts and lawsuits, the Republican-dominated Georgia Legislature passed the tough law Thursday night in the closing hours of this year’s legislative session. Robinson did not say when the governor would sign the measure.

“The bill reflects well the priorities and principles that the governor fought for last year,” he said. “We believe it strengthens the law in Georgia.”

Among other things, the bill will allow law enforcement officials to ask about immigration status when questioning suspects in certain criminal investigations. It penalizes those who transport illegal immigrants while committing a crime and imposes heavy jail sentences on those who use forged documents to find work.

After the vote, drafter of the bill, Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey, declared, “We did the job we were sent to do.”

Ramsey said the bill addresses issues being imposed on states because the federal government has failed to secure the nation’s borders for decades.

After a long debate, the bill passed both chambers. Opponents argued that the bill could encourage racial profiling and discrimination. They also said the measure could harm the state’s image and economy.

Supporters accused illegal immigrants of overcrowding schools in Georgia and forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for emergency room medical care for undocumented migrants.

“People come here, legally or illegally, to fulfill the dreams they have for themselves and their families,” said Senator Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat and opponent of the bill.

State Senator Renee Unterman, a Republican from suburban Atlanta who supported the legislation, countered, “They are illegals, they will use our services.”

In the end, the vote in both chambers was close. The state Senate passed the measure 37 to 19. The Georgia House, which provided final passage for the bill, approved it 112 to 59.

Thursday’s vote marks the second time in five years that Georgia lawmakers have passed legislation to combat illegal immigration, considered one of the toughest in the country. In 2006, the state legislature passed legislation, later enacted, that required state contractors and public employers to submit the names of the people they hire to a federal database to determine whether they are lawful residents of the United States .

House Bill 87 requires private companies with more than 10 employees to use the same database. The system is called E-Verify. The legislation allows state and local law enforcement officials to arrest illegal immigrants. It also imposes jail terms of up to one year and fines of up to $1,000 for people who knowingly transport illegal immigrants while committing a crime.

Workers convicted of using fake IDs to look for a job could face 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The business community, including the influential agricultural lobby, strongly opposed the E-Verify provision. However, in a compromise last day, House and Senate lawmakers added language to the bill that would exempt companies employing fewer than 11 workers from using the federal database.

Republican Senator John Bulloch, chairman of the chamber’s Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, said, “In the end, I still don’t like it, but it’s a good bill.”

DA King, an anti-illegal immigration activist and longtime lobbyist for tougher laws, called the measure “one of the best thought out, potentially most effective immigration enforcement laws in the country.”

“At the state level, this will set a new bar,” King said.

Protesters held a candlelight vigil in front of the Georgia Capitol on Thursday night. At the gathering, 7-year-old Jazlie Camacho told the crowd, “I’m here to make sure they take this law away.”

Jazlie is an American-born citizen but her parents are from Mexico.

Paulina Hernandez, a member of a group called Southerners on New Ground, said her organization will call for a boycott of the state.

“We are not prepared to tell the nation that Georgia is a state worth investing in because they do not have the best interests of their people in mind.”

Several rights and activist groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are already planning lawsuits to block implementation of the measure. They hope the courts will agree with them.

In Arizona, a federal judge halted implementation of that state’s anti-immigration law last year after the Obama administration filed a lawsuit. The president’s attorneys argued that the federal government, not the state, had sole authority to regulate immigration.

Last week, a federal appeals panel upheld the lower court’s decision to block passage of the most controversial provision of Arizona’s statute, known as Senate Bill 1070.

The court rulings have not stopped legislatures in other states from introducing copycat laws against illegal immigration. Among them are Utah and Indiana as well as Georgia.

“Georgian law is one of the best written and potentially most effective,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls. Indiana’s bill, meanwhile, has attracted attention because Gov. Mitch Daniels is considered a potential presidential nominee for 2012, Krikorian said.

In Indiana, Daniels wants a strong E-Verify provision but is less adamant about giving law enforcement officers more powers to question some suspects about their legal status, analysts say.

Daniel’s preference for the E-Verify portion over the law enforcement portion could be due to the recent Court of Appeals ruling on Arizona law, analysts said.

“The decision raises new doubts about the constitutionality of Arizona law and will likely further dampen efforts to enact SB 1070-like bills in other states where economic concerns have already prompted state legislatures to reconsider or.” give up,” says an analysis by the Institute for Migration Policy.