ATLANTA - A Georgia state lawmaker on Thursday filed legislation that targets illegal immigrants in the work force and is drawing criticism from several fronts, including the state's No. 1 industry, agriculture.
Like a bill filed last week in the Georgia House of Representatives, the proposal from state Sen. Jack Murphy and other Republican senators would require all private employers to use a federal database to check that new hires are in the country illegally. But, unlike the House bill, it includes exemptions for employers who use certain work visa programs.
"What we want to do is have the employers ... check on their employees to make sure that they're in this country legally, working legally under the proper visas," Murphy told reporters.
The exemption would include the H2-A visa program, which allows farmers to bring in workers from other countries for seasonal work. The program is very unpopular with the state's farmers, who say it is cumbersome and expensive.
Growers in Georgia employ illegal immigrants and other laborers to plant and harvest labor-intensive crops, particularly fruits and vegetables easily bruised by machines.
Michael Hively, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Business Council of Georgia and CFO of Bland Farms, said using the government's visa program for short-term agriculture workers is expensive. His farm uses that program to get up to 350 workers.
Farmers must provide housing for temporary workers, cover their transportation costs and pay them a better wage than illegal immigrants.
"The smaller growers out there ... do not have the housing and the infrastructure set up to do" it, Hively said. "We need immigration reform, but we need it at the national level."
The Georgia Farm Bureau, a lobbying group, said it was still studying the proposal and could not immediately comment. But the organization voted at its annual convention in December to oppose any state immigration measure that "discriminates against the farm worker" and puts farmers at a competitive disadvantage.
In a statement a week before the release of his bill, Murphy said he wanted to create an exclusion for the agriculture industry, but his bill would also apply to other special visa programs, including the H-1B visa, which allows companies to bring in highly specialized workers, and the H-2B visa, which allows employers to bring in foreign workers for short-term, nonagricultural work.
The bill drew criticism from D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which argues for strong immigration enforcement measures.
"On illegal employment, the bill's author has excluded so many industries from the badly needed required statewide use of the no-cost federal E-Verify system so as to make it a parody of an employment enforcement bill," King said in a statement.
Like the House bill introduced last week, Murphy's legislation would require law enforcement officers, during any stop of a criminal suspect, to verify the immigration status of the suspect if they believe the person is in the country illegally. If the person is determined to be here illegally, the bill would allow officers to arrest them and take them to a federal detention facility.
Civil liberties groups have said such measures are unconstitutional, and a federal judge blocked similar provisions in a law enacted in Arizona last year after the federal government filed a lawsuit. An appeal of that decision is pending.
Murphy's legislation also says certain non-citizens can be punished by a fine of $100 and/or 30 days in jail if they fail to carry proof of their immigration status.
Public employers are already required to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires, but Murphy's bill would implement stricter penalties for those who fail to comply, including fines of $5,000 to $10,000, prison time and removal from office.
The legislation would provide for a standardized affidavit for government contractors to prove they're using the federal verification system. Punishment for contractors and subcontractors who falsify affidavits would include a fine of $1,000 for each day they act in violation and would bar them from bidding on public contracts for a year.
"Our system in Georgia is for our citizens and legal residents of our state," Murphy said, explaining why he believes tougher immigration legislation is necessary.
He said he didn't know how much implementation of his bill, particularly new enforcement measures, would cost. But he argued that illegal immigrants are a drain on the state's taxpayer-funded resources.
Murphy told reporters he is confident that his law would stand up to any challenge brought against it.
Atlanta immigration lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Charles Kuck doesn't believe that's true.
In an analysis of the bill, he says it "has so many inconsistencies, incongruities, and flat out confusing sections that if by some miracle it is passed, it would never see the daylight of its effective date."