By SHANNON McCAFFREY
ATLANTA - Gov. Nathan Deal said Friday he'll sign a tough immigration law recently passed by the Georgia Legislature that includes elements similar to a contentious law enacted in Arizona last year.
The legislation "sends a signal that the citizens of our state believe the rule of law is important," Deal said in an interview with The Associated Press, a day after the bill passed the Georgia Legislature.
Lawmakers had debated the issue for weeks and several versions were considered before a bill passed in the final hours of the 2011 session. Certain businesses will be required to check the immigration status of employees and the bill authorizes law enforcement to verify the immigration status of certain criminal suspects. If the governor signs the bill into law, it would be among the toughest in the nation to pass since Arizona's law was signed and subsequently challenged in court.
Various groups, including those that represent agricultural businesses, restaurant owners and other business interests in Georgia, had fought to weaken the bill, worried they could be penalized for failing to screen new hires. The final version allows any company found to have committed a "good faith violation" to have 30 days to come into compliance.
During the debate, some lawmakers raised concern that a boycott similar to one that happened in Arizona after that state passed its law would hurt businesses in Georgia. On Friday, Deal, a Republican, said he did not think the Georgia law would lead to boycotts or harm businesses in the state and said the problem of illegal immigration must still be addressed at the federal level.
Deal, a former congressman from Georgia, said he hopes the state's adoption of such a tough measure will "send a message to members of Congress that it's time for them to get serious about the issue."
As a congressman, Deal backed tough measures aimed at illegal immigration, including ending birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to those in the country illegally. He said during his campaign for governor that he'd back an Arizona-style law in Georgia.
Groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center assailed the Georgia bill Friday saying it will cost the state millions of dollars in lost tourism and business revenue and tack on huge legal bills to defend against inevitable legal challenges.
Among other provisions, the Georgia bill authorizes law enforcement officers to detain those found to be in the country illegally and would penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, all similar to Arizona's law. Fraudulently presenting false documentation when applying for a job would become a felony.
A federal appeals court decision Monday upheld a stay blocking major parts of Arizona's tough immigration law. The Georgia bill's sponsor, state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, has said the language in his bill differs significantly from Arizona's and that he is confident it will stand up to any legal challenges.
The Georgia law mandates that private businesses with more than 10 employees use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires before they can get a business license or other documents needed to operate. The requirement would be phased in in three steps with all employers with more than 10 employees being required to be in compliance by July 1, 2013.
Opponents said the requirement was burdensome on businesses but supporters maintain it was needed because it is jobs that lure illegal immigrants to the state.
Deal did not provide a timeline on when he would act on the bill. He has 40 days after the end of the legislative session to sign or veto legislation.
Ann Morse, program director for the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Utah is the only other state that has enacted an omnibus immigration law but that Georgia's legislation is more similar to Arizona's.
"It's probably the toughest since Arizona's" Morse said.