Immigration will be a hot-button issue — again — in upcoming state legislative sessions.
State legislators say they have to act against illegal immigration because the federal government won't.
"To me these bills are about frustration with the federal government and its ability to manage our borders," said Tennessee Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. "This is a national security problem when people cross our borders illegally, and people are simply fed up with the federal government's response."
Tennessee and Georgia are among seven states likely this year to follow Arizona's lead and pass tough immigration laws, according to the National Immigration Forum.
The Arizona law makes it a state crime to be in the country without authorization and allows police to check the immigration status of people they stop or arrest.
"If the federal government is not going to enforce illegal immigration laws on border states -- I'm not the first one to say this, it's been quoted before -- then every state might as well consider themselves a border state," said state Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City.
Cobb was among a group of Tennessee Republicans who traveled to Arizona last year to present Gov. Jan Brewer with a resolution commending the state for the law.
At least three immigration-related bills have been filed in Tennessee and two in Georgia. Several others, including Arizona-type bills, will be introduced shortly after legislators return to Nashville and Atlanta, some lawmakers said.
The new Georgia and Tennessee governors, Republicans Nathan Deal and Bill Haslam, have said they would sign an Arizona-type bill if it came before them, according to the National Immigration Forum.
However, outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen this week cautioned his successor, Bill Haslam, and state legislators against spending time on issues such as immigration. He called such issues "distractions" to the core issues the state needs to focus on: economic development and education.
Immigration-related bills already filed in legislatures
• SB 0008: Would require all state and local governmental entities to verify that all employees hired after July 1, 2011, are not illegal aliens
• SB 0009: Would require public postsecondary institutions to verify that applicants are U.S. citizens or are international students with valid visas
• SB 0010: Would require that all written examinations for driver's license or intermediate driver's license be in English
Source: Tennessee General Assembly
• SB 3: The "Georgia Public Works and Contractor Protection Act" relates to public employers' verification of employee work eligibility using federal programs such as E-verify.
• HB 25: Clarifies college education is a state and local public benefit reserved for citizens and eligible aliens. Requires verification of eligibility through the federal SAVE program
Source: Georgia General Assembly
LAW IN COURT
Arizona's law, however, has been challenged in court, and some lawmakers advise moving slowly.
"I'd be opposed right now to just going out and lockstep taking what Arizona is doing, because you got the federal court challenges that are in there," Georgia state Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohut-ta, said during a roundtable discussion last month with Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters.
"We need to be sure that what we are going to put in place is, A, going to be effective and B, it's not going to get us in court spending dollars that are needed to take care of our citizens trying to defend what we've done in immigration," he said.
Berke, who voted against the resolution commending Arizona, said he would consider any bill that comes before him, "but the provisions that have been shown to be unconstitutional in other places I cannot vote for ... here."
Groups in Tennessee and Georgia including the Georgia Farm Bureau, chambers of commerce and pro-immigrant organizations have expressed concern over passing measures similar to Arizona's controversial law.
As early as next week, Tennessee lawmakers may present three bills that deal with illegal immigration, said Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who is leading the task force drafting immigration-related bills. They would:
• Mandate the use of the E-verify program in the hiring of public and private employees;
• Make state agencies verify the legal status of people applying for benefits using the federal program SAVE;
• Codify the federal no-trespassing law as a state statute.
Cobb said the legislation isn't perfect, but it's a good starting point.
"In many cases it will end up in court," he said. "If so many cases start to lose, when there's precedence continuously that looks like racial profiling is being used, then the law is going to become meaningless, but I don't see that happening," he said.
Georgia created the Joint House and Senate Study Committee on Immigration Reform to develop policies to enforce immigration laws in the state.
But some immigrant advocates question the benefit of such laws.
"All these laws have a high cost to target a population that is pretty small in the state. What is the real need?" said David Morales, spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
In 2006 Georgia passed what then was considered one of the toughest immigration enforcement laws in the nation.
The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act made it harder for illegal immigrants to receive health care, higher education and other public benefits.
It required people applying for benefits or those who work for businesses doing government work to prove they were legally in the country.
Dr. Pablo Perez, who moved to Dalton, Ga., 11 years ago, said the law has generated fear among immigrants.
"There are many out there who go to work not knowing if they're coming back, worried about who is going to take care of their children," Perez said.
Some people moved out of state as a result of the law, and many more probably would do so if Georgia adopts an Arizona-style law, he said.
State Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, said Georgia's law already is very similar to Arizona's.
"I think what we do is go back to enforcement ... and strengthen what we already have. ... We have to be really careful about what [legislation] we introduce," he said.
Any state strategy must include a demand that the federal government do its job, state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said.
"If we don't, we are spending huge amounts of resources that will not fix the ultimate problem," he said.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...