Focus on illegal immigrants could help GOP in elections

Illegal immigrants will be the gays of 2006, the group targeted by Republicans to get conservative voters to the polls, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicted last spring during a speech in Atlanta.

Last year, GOP-backed ballot measures banning same-sex marriage in Georgia and 10 other states, all of which passed easily, were widely credited as a major force in Republican victories.

Now, Georgia Senate Republicans are vowing to push a bill through the General Assembly this winter to prevent illegals from receiving taxpayer-funded services.

"I think it's divisive politics," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"I find what they're doing is pandering and mean," said Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, one of three Hispanic members of the General Assembly.

But Republicans say there's no grand scheme at work in their decision to crack down on illegal immigrants next year.

"We have not received any secret memo to make illegal immigration an issue," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

In fact, the directive is coming from the outside from voters and not from party strategists, said Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's sponsor.

"You can go to any community in this state and ask people, 'Is illegal immigration a big issue here?' " he said. "These are issues ... citizens say are important."

Johnson said illegal immigration shouldn't even be considered a partisan topic.

He pointed to recent calls for federal help from the Democratic governors of Arizona and New Mexico - Janet Napolitano and Bill Richardson, respectively. The pair declared portions of their states disaster areas in an effort to pry loose funds from Congress for increased border patrols.

"There's a growing demand on government services that both parties are reacting to," said Johnson. "(Illegal immigration) may be an issue in the '06 campaign, but it won't be a Republican issue."

But Zamarripa questioned whether Georgia Republicans are truly motivated to work toward reducing the number of illegal immigrants entering the state or just trying to score political points.

He said any serious effort to solve the problem would target employers who hire illegals.

Rogers introduced such a bill last winter, but Senate Republicans have decided to shelve it for now while they concentrate on the legislation denying illegals taxpayer-funded services.

Zamarripa said GOP leaders are reluctant to do anything to take jobs from illegal immigrants because they have become vital to a number of Georgia's key industries, from farming to textiles to the businesses that cater to tourists.

"They won't do that because the economy of Georgia is at stake," he said.

But Johnson said illegal immigrants with jobs at least are paying taxes. He said he's more worried about illegals who are nothing but a drain on state-funded programs, from food stamps to Medicaid and PeachCare.

Another objection Democrats have to taking up illegal immigration in the General Assembly is that it's a federal issue that should be handled by Congress.

While Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue isn't taking a position on the new GOP measure, he also raised that argument when Rogers first introduced his four-bill package on illegal immigration in February. After all, keeping illegals out of America is the job of the U.S. Border Patrol.

"If the (Georgia) Senate leadership wanted to exercise leadership, they would work with our congressional delegation to provide a federal solution to a failed immigration policy rather than approaching it piecemeal on the state level," Gonzalez said.

"What kind of immigration policy are we going to have if we try to have 50 different policies for 50 different states?"

But Rogers said the buck should stop at the state Legislature when it's the state's money that is being spent on people who have broken the law to get into this country.

"If we could feed, educate and clothe every human being, we would," he said. "But there are limited resources. It is our responsibility to make sure we take care of the taxpayers and citizens of Georgia first."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.