published Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Georgia House sends immigration bill back to Senate

KATE BRUMBACK, Associated Press

ATLANTA — The Georgia House passed a new version of an immigration bill on Tuesday that restores a key provision requiring employers to check the immigration status of new hires, just 12 hours after the Senate had taken the measure out.

The House's refusal to exclude the provision makes the bill's fate uncertain, though backers in both chambers say they'll continue to work on it as the end of the session Thursday looms. The bill would also authorize law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of certain criminal suspects, a provision similar to one in a tough law enacted last year in Arizona.

Rep. Matt Ramsey, the bill's sponsor, presented the new version that would require private employers with more than 10 workers to prove they check new hires' immigration status in a federal database called E-Verify before they could get a business license or other documents needed to operate. The Senate had passed a version of the bill Monday night that stripped that language.

"It restores the well-thought-out, well-reasoned legislation that we passed several weeks ago out of the House," Ramsey said of the amended bill as he presented it to his House colleagues.

After the House voted 115-59 to approve the new version, it was sent immediately back to the Senate.

"We're hoping for an agreement," Ramsey said. "It's a very good bill."

Sen. Jack Murphy, the sponsor of a Senate immigration bill, said after the House vote that he wasn't surprised by the House's actions.

"That wasn't unexpected," he said.

He said the bill will likely be taken up Tuesday afternoon in the Senate and that a motion to agree on the language would likely come to a vote. If senators vote to accept the new version with no amendments, the bill would go to Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal hasn't indicated whether he would sign it. If the senators reject the new language, the bill could be dead for the session or could go to a joint committee that would seek a compromise.

House Speaker David Ralston expressed strong support for the E-Verify language and said the version of the bill the Senate passed Monday "really brings into question whether they're serious about immigration reform."

The restored provision that requires employers to check new hires mirrors that in an amendment that was proposed in the Senate Monday night but that failed to pass, Ramsey said. In presenting the new version, Ramsey called changes made by the Senate Monday night "curious."

Various groups representing businesses, the agriculture industry and restaurant owners, among others, have urged lawmakers to eliminate the E-Verify mandate, saying it would be too burdensome for small business owners. Ramsey and Ralston dismissed that argument.

"I don't think any of us in the House want to do anything that's going to unduly burden small business here in the state," Ralston said. "By the same token, I think that we want to make sure that what we do pass has credibility and that people know that it's a meaningful piece of legislation that ensures that we are going to be a nation of laws."

The new version of the bill still includes provisions that would allow law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of certain criminal suspects. It removes language added by another Senate amendment Monday that would have required those criminal suspects to have committed a felony before being subject to that check.

It still includes provisions that would penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants — another provision that echoes Arizona's law — but the new version amends that language to reflect concerns that people who work for a charity or church could get in trouble for giving someone a ride. The new language excludes an employer who's transporting an employee who was lawfully hired or a person who's "providing privately funded social services."

The new version also incorporates some language drawn from Murphy's bill clarifying the verification requirements for contractors and subcontractors.

The new version also establishes an Immigration Enforcement Review Board consisting of seven members — three appointed by the governor, two by the lieutenant governor and two by the House Speaker. The panel would be charged with investigating any complaint by a Georgia registered voter about non-compliance with state immigration laws by a public agency or employee.

The immigration debate in the Georgia Legislature coincides with a federal appeals court decision Monday to uphold a stay blocking major parts of Arizona's tough immigration law. Ramsey said the language in his bill is significantly different from that in the Arizona bill and that his bill "is constitutional, it will withstand legal challenge."

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