ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue on Monday signed what is being billed as the toughest anti-illegal immigration law in the country.
Flanked by seven Republican state lawmakers, the GOP governor scrawled his name across the bill inside his Capitol office just two hours after a flag-waving crowd of about 200 rallied outside in support of the measure.
"Georgia is not and this bill is not anti-immigrant,'' Perdue said. "(But) we cannot tolerate activity that distracts us from embracing those who came here legally. ... We unashamedly support following our state and federal laws.''
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, cleared the Legislature late last month on the votes of Republicans and conservative Democrats.
It will require Georgia adults seeking many taxpayer-funded services to prove that they are either U.S. citizens or in this country legally.
Businesses seeking government contracts will have to verify the immigration status of their employees, while other companies will be discouraged from hiring illegals through tax penalties.
"Contract workers'' who cannot provide a taxpayer identification number or Social Security number will have a 6 percent income tax deducted from their paychecks.
The legislation also includes provisions increasing penalties for human trafficking, requiring law enforcement agencies to verify the legal status of suspects arrested for felonies or DUIs and clamping down on "notarios," people who falsely claim to be lawyers with expertise in obtaining documents illegal immigrants need to get a job.
The loudest and longest round of applause during Monday's noontime rally came when D.A. King of Marietta, who organized the event, announced that Perdue was going to sign the bill later in the day.
"Thank you, Governor Perdue,'' said King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, an anti-illegal immigrant group.
While expressing their appreciation to the governor and General Assembly, King and other speakers called on Congress to get busy and enact federal immigration-reform legislation.
The U.S. House passed a tough bill several months ago heavy on enforcement.
Legislation now pending in the Senate leans more toward finding a solution for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
King said the bill that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month is unacceptable because it would give many illegal workers now living here a pathway to American citizenship.
"We had blanket amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants in '86 ... and have proven beyond any doubt that it does not stop illegal immigration,'' he said. "We cannot have another amnesty.''
Rep. Melvin Everson, R-Snellville, who introduced a bill in the House to cut off public benefits to illegal immigrants, said an influx of illegal workers is draining social services budgets.
He cited as an example the additional teachers Gwinnett County schools have been forced to hire to teach English to newly arrived Hispanic children.
"The last time I checked, America was the land of English, not Spanish,'' he told the crowd during Monday's rally.
But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the new law will hurt the state economically in the long run because it will hurt industries that rely on illegal-immigrant labor.
He listed farming, poultry, textiles and construction as prime examples.
"It's sending the wrong message to immigrants considering coming to Georgia, that they're not wanted or welcome,'' he said.
Gonzalez said the law also will damage Georgia's efforts to attract the headquarters of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas to Atlanta.
But Perdue said he met with several Latin American consul generals about the bill while it was making its way through the Legislature, and they understood that Georgia needed to address illegal immigration in the absence of action from Congress.