ATLANTA - President Barack Obama has waded into the fierce debate over illegal immigration in Georgia, strongly criticizing the state's Arizona-style legislation on immigration enforcement.
In an interview with WSB-TV, Obama said of House Bill 87: "It is a mistake for states to try to do this piecemeal. We can't have 50 different immigration laws around the country. Arizona tried this, and a federal court already struck them down."
''The truth of the matter is that we've done more on enforcement than any previous administration," he said. "We have more border patrols. We have been engaging in serious enforcement crackdowns on employers who are hiring undocumented workers."
The author of HB 87 -- Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City -- issued a prepared response Wednesday, saying Georgia has been forced to take action because the federal government has failed to secure the nation's borders. Illegal immigrants, Ramsey said, are sapping Georgia's taxpayer-funded resources.
''Unlike the federal government, the state of Georgia actually balances its budget each year and we simply cannot afford to wait on solutions from Washington, D.C.," Ramsey said in an e-mail. "We will continue to take decisive and necessary action as a state to enforce the rule of law and protect our citizens from the problems posed by the federal government's failure to live up to its most basic responsibility to secure our nation's borders."
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal has confirmed the Republican governor intends to sign the bill some time in the first two weeks of May.
Like Arizona's law, Georgia's measure would empower state and local police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects.
The Obama administration sued to block Arizona's law last year, arguing it is pre-empted by federal law. A federal judge sided with the White House and put some elements of Arizona's law on hold. Arizona appealed that decision. A federal appeals court recently upheld the lower court's decision, keeping much of the law on hold pending the outcome of the federal lawsuit.
Georgia has the ninth-largest population among states, but it is home to the seventh-largest number of illegal immigrants, estimated at 425,000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
During the recently concluded state legislative session, supporters of HB 87 argued that illegal immigrants are burdening the state's public schools, jails and hospitals.
Some business owners, however, expressed concern that a crackdown would harm the state's agricultural, landscaping and restaurant industries, which partly depend on migrant labor.
Opponents of HB 87 are now ratcheting up their pressure on Deal to not sign the bill. At a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, a small group of Hispanic businessmen decried HB 87, saying the publicity surrounding it is hurting the state's economy. Fearful of the crackdown, Hispanics have stopped shopping and some are fleeing the state, the businessmen said.
Julio Penaranda, general manager of the Plaza Fiesta mall near Atlanta, said he has noticed an impact at his shopping center, which mostly includes stores owned and operated by Hispanics.
''We have seen a slight increase in sales this year, but as soon as this bill was passed that has dropped," Penaranda said. "So we are back to levels of sales that we saw when the recession was just starting to come in."
Other critics of HB 87 are hanging up banners in Atlanta that are critical of the measure. Immigrant rights activists are planning to rally against the legislation Sunday morning outside the Capitol.
Jeremy Redmon writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org