Immigrant bill tough but flexible

ATLANTA - Georgia's senior U.S. senator will introduce legislation today that would combine a get-tough approach toward illegal immigration with flexibility to allow some illegal farm workers to remain in this country temporarily.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss' bill has many of the enforcement provisions contained in other measures pending before Congress, including hiring more Customs and Border Patrol officers, building more border checkpoints and detention centers and authorizing state and local police agencies to enforce federal immigration law.

But the bill also would allow illegal immigrants working in farming or related businesses - including poultry production and landscaping - to remain in the country for up to two years at the request of their employers.

"This is not amnesty. Amnesty allows them to stay here illegally for an indefinite period of time,'' said Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"(But) we can't stick our head in the sand and say, as a practical matter, that we can round up all these folks and send them back where they came from.''

Chambliss' bill takes a different tone toward illegal immigrants than legislation being pushed by other Republicans at both the state and federal levels.

Legislation sponsored by two members of Georgia's congressional delegation - U.S. Reps. Charlie Norwood, R-Evans, and Tom Price, R-Roswell - focuses strictly on beefing up efforts to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing the border into this country or arresting them after they're here.

In the General Assembly, Republicans are pushing various measures to deny taxpayer-funded services to people who cannot prove they are legal residents, including a ban on noncitizens enrolling in state colleges or universities.

Earlier this month, GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered the state agency in charge of eligibility for Medicaid to take steps to ensure that no noncitizens receive benefits.

"That's a step in the right direction,'' Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said Monday. "(But) we still think legislation is required.''

Chambliss said he opposes such efforts.

"We can't deny health care to illegal immigrants,'' he said. "The law says we can't deny education to their children. I support that.''

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, praised the portion of Chambliss' bill offering flexibility to illegal farm workers.

"I think Sen. Chambliss is trying to place back reality into the situation that we as a nation rely heavily on immigrant labor, particularly in Georgia with the agriculture industry,'' he said.

But Gonzalez said any push to empower local authorities to go after illegal immigrants would only make American communities less safe because illegals would go further into hiding.

"They're not going to report crimes, call the police when they're victims of crime or when they see suspicious activity,'' he said.

Chambliss said any illegal immigrants who take advantage of the two-year stay offered in his bill would be issued ID cards that would let authorities keep track of them. Also, the offer would not be valid for any job that an American worker wants to fill, he said.