States get tough on illegal immigration

States get tough on illegal immigration

July 24th, 2011 by Perla Trevizo in News

Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, speaks during an interview about illegal immigration.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


• Alabama: HB 56, signed June 9, 2011: Requires state and local law enforcement to try to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest for another reason, except if it may hinder or obstruct an investigation. It creates state penalties for willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document of up to 30 days in jail and $100 for a first offense.

Effective April 1, 2012, public contractors and subcontractors are required to use E-Verify; public schools (K-12) are required to determine a student's immigration status and submit annual reports to the state education board; bans illegal immigrants from attending college or receiving any state scholarships, grants or financial aid; prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving any state or local public benefits, with some exemptions including emergency health care; makes it illegal to knowingly transport or rent to an unauthorized immigrant; and requires a person to present proof of citizenship and residency before voting.

• Georgia: HB 87, signed May 13, 2011: Parts blocked by a federal injunction. People who, while committing another criminal offense, knowingly and intentionally transport or harbor an illegal immigrant can be charged with a misdemeanor and face up to 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine for the first offense.

Law enforcement officials can check a person's immigration status if that person is suspected to have broken a law and use any reasonable means to determine his or her legal status, including detaining or arresting the person. Anyone who has contact with law enforcement to report a crime, as a witness to a crime or as a victim of a crime, cannot be required to prove their legal status, according to an exception clause in the law.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2012, people who apply for public benefits, such as housing assistance, food stamps and business licenses, must provide a "secure and verifiable" document to show proof of legal residence.

Private employers with more than 10 employees will need to use the federal work authorization program known as E-verify to check their employees status.

• Tennessee: SB 1669: Requires employers with six or more employees to enroll in E-Verify or confirm that employees have drivers' licenses from states with license requirements as strict as Tennessee's.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures; Georgia General Assembly, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugees Rights Coalition

These days, immigration is a perpetual topic of debate in almost every state legislature.

Year after year, states across the nation grapple with immigration, and lawmakers introduce more and more bills to deal with the issue.

In the first quarter of 2011, legislators in the 50 states and Puerto Rico introduced 1,538 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants and refugees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That's up from the 1,180 bills introduced during the first quarter of 2010.

In the sessions that ended earlier this year, Georgia and Alabama became part of a growing but limited list of states that followed Arizona in passing some of the nation's toughest laws on illegal immigration.

In 2006, Georgia had passed what was then considered to be the toughest immigration law in the nation but was surpassed by Arizona in 2010.

This year, Georgia and Alabama and a handful of other states enacted laws that allow police officers to ask about the immigration status of people they stop, mandate the use of a federal program to verify an employee's eligibility to work and increase penalties for using fake documents to obtain work.

"First of all, we realize that this country was founded on immigrants. My ancestors are from Europe primarily and, of course, I have Cherokee in me as well," said Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga. But people should be in this country legally, he said, and his constituents want Georgia's lawmakers to address the immigration issue since the federal government has failed to do so.

Mullis introduced legislation similar to House Bill 87, Georgia's newly passed immigration bill. His bill didn't pass. He also co-sponsored the Senate version of HB 87.

Tennessee's General Assembly also considered a bill similar to Georgia's but the bill was deferred until 2012 in part because of opposition from business groups and a $3 million cost estimate.

But the Volunteer State did pass an employment verification requirement for businesses with more than six employees. Many lawmakers agree it's one of the most important provisions because jobs are what attract immigrants in the first place.

About 425,000 illegal immigrants live in Georgia and 140,000 in Tennessee, according to 2010 Pew Hispanic Center estimates, or 4 percent of Georgia's population and 2 percent of Tennessee's.

But it doesn't matter how small the percentage is, the number itself is significant, said Tennessee state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who voted for the employment verification bill.

"Any time you have illegal immigrants in your area, you have security issues, you have resources issues, people who may not have health insurance or be paying into the tax system. These are all problems that you have when you have people living invisible to the system," he said.

The cost of illegal immigrants to the state is one of the factors lawmakers frequently cite.

Georgia's Mullis and Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, sponsor of HB 87, said unauthorized immigrants cost the state $2.4 billion each year - an estimate from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group that favors stricter immigration control.

"I think every aspect of our state government is impacted by [illegal immigration] from an economic standpoint," said Ramsey. "When you are talking about a budgetary time, cutting year after year, dealing with declining revenues, we had no choice. From an economic standpoint, this is something we had to do."

The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates unauthorized immigrants cost Tennessee taxpayers $547,000 each year.

But another report estimates Georgia would lose nearly $68 billion and close to 380,000 jobs if all unauthorized workers were removed from the state's economy. Tennessee would lose $12 billion and 74,000 jobs, according to the 2008 report from The Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm, and Americans for Immigration Reform, a business group that studies immigration.

Mullis said he doesn't disagree that illegal immigrants contribute to the state's economy, but he thinks the numbers are exaggerated.

Jerry González, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said lawmakers who don't think illegal immigrants contribute to the economy "are out of touch with reality."

"What about the $68 billion generated by one single industry in our state?" he asked. "That's our agricultural industry, [and] 50 to 70 percent of the workforce is undocumented immigrants."

The agricultural industry in Georgia was a big opponent of the immigration bill.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, proposed that some of the state's 100,000 people sentenced to some form of probation could take on the estimated 11,000 jobs in agriculture.

But González said probationers are not taking those jobs.

"Our farms are expected to lose $300 million in rotting crops this year, and over $1 billion in the next couple of years," he said.

Ramsey said the idea that Georgia's economy would suffer without illegal immigrants is a "silly" argument.

"The fundamental basis to that argument is that Georgia's economy can't prosper without those who are in the country illegally, and I categorically reject that," he said.

What's needed, González said, is comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.

"Yes, we want legal workers to come to Georgia, as well. Yes, we want people to enter the country legally. Yes, we want our borders secure," he said. "But we need an acting Congress to make it happen."

Mullis said the federal immigration system is the main problem.

"I believe the sole problem is the fact that the system that the federal government has in order to become a legal citizen simply does not work; it's broken," he said.

The system takes too long, he said.

"It should be a simple system that seeks to identify the person to make sure they have no criminal background and work visas should be given ... at least time to visit their loved ones in this country," he said. "I just want them to have their legal documents to be in this country and if they don't, they shouldn't be in this country."

More immigration-related legislation is expected in next year's legislative sessions in Tennessee and Georgia.

Ramsey said he expects the reintroduction of a bill that would prevent unauthorized immigrants from enrolling in the state's colleges and universities; it failed this past session.

Stephen Fotopolous, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugees Rights Coalition, said Tennessee's Legislature avoided "the same mistakes made in Georgia and Alabama."

"[Legislators] responded to real and legitimate frustrations that our immigration laws are outdated and need to be reformed, but they have created significant burdens on government, local taxpayers and small business owners, the last thing you want to do when you are trying to create jobs," he said.

In Tennessee, Berke said the Arizona-type bill will come up again, but lawmakers should be cautious.

"We can and should deal with the problem of illegal immigration in a sensible way. We have to be careful about infringing on the right of our citizens when dealing with this problem," he added.