DALTON, Ga.-Of all the states that have talked about passing an Arizona-style immigration law, Georgia stands out as one that may actually go through with it.
Georgia's HB 87 was described as "one of the broadest and most far-reaching of any of the immigration measures being considered in the state legislatures this spring" by ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of state-based pro-immigration business coalitions.
HB 87 provides penalties for employers and agencies that don't comply with immigration law and makes it a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison to use fake identification to get a job.
It passed the Republican-controlled House on March 3, mostly on party lines. A similar bill, SB 40, made it out of the Republican-controlled Senate Monday.
State and local organizations are closely following more than a half-dozen bills each in the Tennessee and Georgia legislatures.
America Gruner, founder of the Dalton, Ga.-based Coalition of Latino Leaders, said the group is disappointed that lawmakers are more concerned with persecuting immigrants than dealing with real problems in the state.
"Besides the potential lawsuits and economic cost of those initiatives, we care also about the unnecessary human cost of separating families, of going back to the segregation era and inequality," she said.
Walker County Tea Party Coordinator Dean Kelley said he fully supports the Georgia legislation.
ACROSS THE COUNTRY
• Arizona lawmakers on Thursday defeatedfive illegal immigration-related bills, including one intended to force a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
• The Oklahoma Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that gives police broad powers to arrest illegal immigrants and seize property used to commit immigration-related crimes.
• When Alabama legislators return from spring break next week, they could take up a Republican-backed Arizona-style immigration bill that would make it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs or apply for government benefits.
• Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed bills Tuesday that will increase immigration enforcement but also implement a guest worker program.
• The Maryland Senate on Monday passed a measure allowing some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland colleges and universities.
Source: The Associated Press
"The federal government has not enforced our existing immigration laws and is putting the states in a position where they are having to deal with this," he said. "Which means that we have to give our state law enforcement the tools to tackle the immigration problem."
Some of the bills, including one in Georgia that would deny access to higher education to illegal immigrants, are stalled for this session. But measures that would require employers to use a verification system to check new hires' immigration status and to allow police to ask criminal suspects their immigration status continue to advance.
And the word has gotten out to immigrant communities.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, several Hispanic families sat watching soccer on a field at Southeast High School in Whitfield County.
Despite the sunny sky and warm weather, fewer families were there than in the past, attendees and soccer league organizers said.
Omar Velazquez, a board member of the Dalton Soccer League, said the number of predominantly Hispanic teams has decreased from 60 to 42.
Though 2010 Census figures show nearly a third of Whitfield County residents and almost half of Dalton residents are Hispanic, many have left, those watching soccer said.
They cited the combined pressure of a 2006 state law that was then the toughest immigration measure in the nation, and a recession that hit Dalton's floorcovering industry especially hard.
And it will only get tougher if Georgia passes such bills, they said.
"A lot of things have changed since I came to Dalton 25 years ago," said Jesús González, who migrated to the United States from Mexico 40 years ago.
The Pew Hispanic Center says Georgia ranks seventh for the largest share of illegal immigrants, at 425,000 - down from 475,000 in 2007.
The center estimates that 140,000 illegal immigrants live in Tennessee, compared to 160,000 in 2007.
The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking about 1,200 immigration bills, said Immigrant Policy Project Director Ann Morse.
Last year, 46 states and the District of Columbia passed 346 immigration-related laws out of 1,400 considered, she said, and she expects this year to be similar.
Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, wrote one of the Arizona-style enforcement bills. SB 104 is not going to pass this year, but Mullis said in a news release it was part of a promise he made to his constituents last fall.
"Since 2006 when I helped the Georgia General Assembly pass what were at that time the strongest illegal immigration enforcement laws in the nation, our state has dealt with continued problems," he said. "It is clear law enforcement needs more resources to combat this growing and prevalent issue in northwest Georgia and the entire state."
Mullis couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
The tea party's Kelley said something must be done.
"You just can't allow undocumented individuals coming into our country," he said. "Illegal immigration is being unfair to the ones playing by the rules."
Georgia state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said it is unfortunate that states must consider immigration bills because the federal government isn't living up to its responsibilities.
Critics, including businesses, say Arizona-type bills can hinder the economy and Bethel said they might be right.
The question is, he said, "What's the price of the rule of law?"