ATLANTA-The Georgia House passed a bill Thursday that aims to crack down on illegal immigration in the state and contains some provisions similar to a tough law enacted in Arizona last year.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, passed the House by a largely partisan vote of 113-56.
It's up to the federal government to secure U.S. borders and deport illegal immigrants, but Georgia can remove incentives that bring illegal immigrants to the state, Ramsey said.
"No doubt about it, our federal government has failed us, and our citizens in Georgia are suffering the consequences," Ramsey said as he presented the bill in the House chamber.
One provision would allow law officers to verify the immigration status of criminal suspects, and another penalizes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, provisions also in Arizona's new law. Georgia's bill also would require employers to verify the immigration status of new hires and would make it a felony to "willfully and fraudulently" present false documentation when applying for a job. That felony would carry a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.
Those who opposed the bill stressed that they do not support illegal immigration, but said it is a federal problem. They said the bill could lead to racial profiling and could damage the state's economy and reputation.
Ramsey said the most important part of his bill is the section that requires all employers with more than four employees to check the status of new hires using a federal database called E-Verify.
"We know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the root cause of illegal immigration is, and that's illegal employment," he said. "If we do an immigration reform bill and we don't get at private employment, it's like trying to cure cancer with an aspirin."
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat, said after the vote that she expected the bill to pass but said she's disappointed. The proposal tells tourists and international businesses that they are not welcome, she said. Illegal immigration also is a federal problem, she said.
She said a section that says officers "shall be authorized to seek to verify" a suspect's immigration status if the suspect is unable to provide identification could lead to racial profiling. A federal judge blocked similar provisions in a law enacted in Arizona last year after the federal government sued.
Ramsey has dismissed such claims, saying his bill prohibits racial profiling.
It will now be considered by the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, a Republican from Woodstock, said Ramsey's bill is more comprehensive than a similar bill proposed by Sen. Jack Murphy, which on Wednesday passed a Senate committee.
"It's well thought out. You can tell by the language that he's put an enormous amount of thought into it and has really considered all the ways people might get around the law," Rogers said.
The lengthy bill includes several provisions, including one that would penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants. Ramsey said that is aimed at punishing smugglers and human traffickers.
It also would allow individual citizens to sue local governments and agencies that don't use federal databases to check the legal status of new hires and people who apply for benefits like Medicaid. However, those entities would have 30 days to fix the problem before a lawsuit moves forward.
More than 100 people gathered outside the Capitol during discussion on the floor to protest the bill.
"It's a shame the Georgia Legislature wants to kill jobs, that they are working to kill our No. 1 industry, agriculture," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "It's a shame that Georgia is positioning itself for a national boycott that will likely harm our No. 2 industry, tourism."
D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, said he was elated at the bill's passage.
"I'm happy to see the wide margin of victory and that at least some Democrats recognize the importance of protecting the American worker," he said.
Rep. Glenn Baker, a Democrat from Jonesboro, said his vote was incorrectly recorded as "yea" but that he plans to change it in accordance with legislative rules.