By Karina Gonzalez
Tennessee lawmakers say they expect to tackle immigration bills this year that deal with everything from driving certificates to a crackdown on certain employers.
"It (illegal immigration) was by far the biggest issue that I had brought up to me," said Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, a freshmen lawmaker who campaigned on the issue of illegal immigration. "And I think it's going to stay on our front burner."
The National Conference of State Legislatures predicted that illegal immigration would be the hottest issue for legislators across the country this year.
Ooltewah resident Manuela Gayulo, a native of Uruguay who became a U.S. citizen seven years ago, said such legislation negatively affects all immigrants -- including those who are here legally.
"I've heard of (legal immigrants) in Georgia being confused for illegal immigrants and arrested," said Ms. Gayulo, who is taking English classes through a program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College that is partly funded by the Mexican government. "That's not fair."
Gov. Phil Bresesen said last week that legislation that targets illegal immigration is acceptable, but he hopes it does not result in discrimination against all Hispanics.
Tennessee lawmakers introduced more than a dozen bills during last year's legislative session that were aimed at reducing the flow of illegal immigration to the state, records show. But only one, a measure prohibiting employers who hire illegal immigrants from bidding on state jobs, passed.
However, Tennessee Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said recently that such legislation fails to get at the source of the problem -- employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"(Illegal immigrants) would not be here if they could not be hired," Rep. Brown said at a legislative roundtable discussion at the Times Free Press earlier this month.
Rep. Brown said the way to deal with the issue is to fine or shut down businesses that hire illegal immigrant workers.
Ray Atkinson, a spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride, a chicken processor with plants in Chattanooga, said the company already takes measures to ensure workers are of legal status.
"Company-wide, Pilgrim's Pride voluntarily uses the Basic Pilot, which is the only means currently available for employers to verify that their newly hired employees are authorized to work in the United States," he said.
From 2005 to 2006, the number of companies using the Basic Pilot Employment Verification Program more than doubled nationwide. The free program checks the legal status of new employees using federal Department of Homeland Security and Social Security information.
In Tennessee, 214 companies now are signed on to the program, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau. In Georgia 407 companies are signed on, according to the agency.
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said he is willing to sponsor legislation this year aimed at cracking down on companies that hire illegal immigrants. He also will reintroduce several bills this year including a proposal to abolish the driving certificate program and a bill that would require all driver's license exams to be given in English only, he said.
Last year Georgia lawmakers passed what some call the most comprehensive proposal to address illegal immigration in the nation.
The new law, which punishes employers who hire illegal immigrants and directs state agencies to deny taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants, goes into effect in July.
This year the Georgia lawmakers plan several measures including designating English as the official language, tightening penalties for those who operate a vehicle without a driver's license in the state and prohibiting tax exemptions from being applied to property owned by illegal immigrants.
Georgia State Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville, said he would like to make sure identification cards issued by the Mexican Consulate are invalid in Georgia.
"Any one of us could get a Matricula Consulate card. We can use that to get government benefits," he said. "We can make it clear that it's illegal to use the Matricula Consulate card for any purpose of ID in the state of Georgia."
Lwmakers are working to address illegal immigration as the Southeast has become a destination for many immigrants from other countries and other U.S. states. In Tennessee, 223,118 residents are foreign-born, according to 2005 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Georgia is the home to 795,419 foreign-born residents.
Stephanie Bohon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee, said that over time citizens have become less welcoming of immigrants and more supportive of strict legislation.
Dr. Bohon, who co-authored the study "Immigration's New Frontiers," released this December, said state lawmakers are trying to address the issue because of the perception that the immigrant population is straining social services and health care.
Dr. Bohon said states are trying to address a federal issue and are missing an opportunity to help legal immigrants learn English and adapt to their new environment faster.
She said legislators are "putting all their eggs in one basket by focusing on how to drive (immigrants) out of our state. But we have a lot of authorized immigrants ... The more quickly people learn English the better it is going to be for everyone."
But Tennessee "needs to see that we are not giving public services to people who are illegally in this country."
Staff writer Matt Wilson contributed to this story.
E-mail Karina Gonzalez at email@example.com