Democrats: Republicans could feel fallout from immigration bill

Legislative Republican leaders say passing a bill during the recently concluded General Assembly session taking aim at illegal immigration was doing what Georgia voters wanted.

Indeed, statewide polls bear out that argument.

But Democrats say one group of voters is upset with the legislation and is prepared to punish GOP candidates for it in November, from Gov. Sonny Perdue on down.

They're warning Republicans not to expect many votes from Hispanics.

"The perception is that Georgia Republicans are anti-Hispanic," said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon. "It defines them as far as their attitude toward the Hispanic community."

The bill, which received unanimous support from House and Senate Republicans, would require Georgia adults seeking many taxpayer-funded services to prove that they are either U.S. citizens or in the country legally.

Businesses seeking government contracts would have to verify the immigration status of their employees. Companies doing business in the private sector would be discouraged from hiring illegals through tax penalties.

Critics charge that the portion of the legislation aimed at illegal immigrants is more punitive than the provisions affecting those who hire them.

For one thing, the denial of public services to illegals would take effect on July 1, 2007.

But the verification requirements for only the largest businesses seeking government contracts - those with 500 or more employees - would become law on that date.

Companies with 100 to 499 workers wouldn't have to comply with the new law until July 1, 2008, while the requirement wouldn't kick in for businesses with fewer than 100 employees until July 1, 2009.

Also, the verification provision wouldn't affect employees working for a company at the time the law takes effect.

"Private employers have literally been given amnesty with this bill," said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin. "(For Republicans) to act so hard-nosed when in the fact the legislation does not do that has caused a backlash in the (Hispanic) community."

But Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson said there is no monolithic Hispanic community when it comes to reacting to the immigration bill.

Johnson, R-Savannah, said legal and illegal immigrants hold different views on what GOP leaders have wrought.

"My whole experience from the very beginning was the legal immigrant community was supportive and at the table," he said. "Even the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was neutral."

Johnson also noted that the bill includes provisions designed primarily to benefit immigrants, including increased penalties for human trafficking and a section aimed at "notarios," people who hold themselves out to Hispanics as legal experts able to help illegal immigrants get around the law.

The legislation's sponsor, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, worked with Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, one of three Hispanic members of the General Assembly, to insert that provision.

"Those who are here legally are appreciative of our efforts to protect that community," Johnson said.

But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said Hispanics don't view the legislature's targeting of illegal immigrants according to whether they are here legally or illegally.

"Georgia is a very new immigrant state," he said. "I would tend to think every Latino registered voter has some proximity to someone who is an illegal immigrant.

"Many I've spoken to see (the bill) as immigrant-bashing, using Latinos as a wedge issue and not offering any real solution. They resent that."

Beyond what Hispanics think about the immigration bill is the question of whether Georgia has enough Hispanic voters to make Republicans feel what resentment they may harbor.

According to the Georgia Secretary of State's office, there were only about 37,500 registered Hispanic voters in the entire state as of March 1, a minuscule 0.88 percent of Georgia's nearly 4.3 million registered voters.

Even in Gwinnett County, with its large and rapidly growing Hispanic population, Hispanic voters only made up 2.2 percent of the mix.

But Gonzalez said those figures vastly undercounted Hispanic voters. He said an analysis his organization conducted in 2004 matching Hispanic surnames found an additional 40,000 registered Hispanic voters.

He noted that former Gov. Zell Miller squeaked through in his successful 1994 reelection bid by fewer than 35,000 votes.

As for whether Hispanics voting in a bloc could tip a close statewide election in Georgia, Gonzalez noted the 1994 defeat of former California Gov. Pete Wilson after the Republican pushed a referendum to deny social services to illegal immigrants.

"This whole notion that they're targeting a group that has no voice in the election process is a bad calculation on their part," Gonzalez said. "They are playing with fire on this issue."

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