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Thousands of people march through downtown Atlanta in protest against Georgia's strict new immigration law on Saturday, July 2, 2011.


HB 87: Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2001

• 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 500 or more employees must register with and use the federal work authorization program known as E-Verify.

• July 1, 2012: Private employers with 100 or more employees but fewer than 500 employees must begin to use E-Verify.

• July 1, 2013: Private employers with more than 10 but fewer than 100 employees must use E-Verify.

Source: Georgia General Assembly

The topic of immigration is not going away anytime soon, but when Georgia lawmakers go back into session in January it is not expected to be a top priority, area lawmakers said.

"Will it be a major topic? No," said Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, during a meeting with the media at Dalton State College last week. "Will there be some bills? Yes."

State legislators across the country introduced 1,607 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants and refugees in 2011, according to the latest report of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2010, 46 states considered more than 1,400 bills and resolutions pertaining to immigrants.

Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah all passed tougher immigration laws, following Arizona's example.

Among other things, Arizona's law allows police to stop and question people on a "reasonable suspicion" that they might be illegal immigrants. The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it will review the law.

Court challenges from the federal government and advocacy groups based on pre-emption and civil rights have been filed against all five states that passed tougher laws.

Earlier this year, a federal judge enjoined two provisions of the Georgia law: One would allow police officers to check the immigration status of those detained for other reasons; the other would punish people who, while committing another offense, knowingly transport illegal immigrants.

The Associated Press reports that Alabama's governor and the state's Republican lawmakers want to clarify and simplify their new immigration law, but North Georgia lawmakers don't expect substantial changes closer to home.

Dickson said most of Georgia's law has been in effect for only six months. He said the bill's author, Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, wants lawmakers to wait before making major changes.

"We need to give it a little more time to see how it plays out," Dickson said.

And Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said states, including Georgia, probably will wait for the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the law "before too much is done."

So far the visible impact of the law is limited in North Georgia.

Rebecca Bolton, director of sales and marketing at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center in Dalton, said the number of quinceaneras held this year fell sharply.

She attributed that drop to uncertainty surrounding the new law.

However, she said booking for quinceaneras, a celebratory rite of passage for Hispanic girls turning 15, is up for 2012.

Farmers in South Georgia reported rotten crops because they didn't have enough immigrant labor. Gov. Nathan Deal even proposed to use probationers, a project that wasn't very successful.

But neither Bethel nor Dickson could cite any immediate changes as a result of it.

"It's hard to assess given the general economic climate of the community," said Bethel. "Certainly our immigrant community has suffered, but I'm not sure it's a unique suffering relative to the population as a whole."

Dr. Pablo Perez, a local physician who works closely with immigrants, said one of the impacts of the law has been fear.

"We saw many families leave to other states or back to their native country because they are afraid of being separated," he said.

But he said the climate is changing and people have regained some measure of tranquility. Local pastors have said their church attendance is as high as it was before the law went into effect and in some churches even higher.

One unintended consequence, though, has been a negative impact for inter-ethnic relations, said Bethel.

The discussion around the law has often become one about Hispanics or about ethnicity instead of the legality around immigration, he said.

"But when that story line is sold enough that it is accepted as truth, it hurts people and it hurts relationships and that's unfortunate."

Staff writer Mariann Martin contributed to this report.

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