ATLANTA - Illegal immigrants wishing to wire money home to their families would have to pay an additional fee under legislation approved by the House on Tuesday.
The narrowly focused bill took up more than two hours of sometimes-emotional debate, a harbinger of what lawmakers will face in the coming weeks when they take up more comprehensive measures targeting illegal immigration.
The Republican-backed bill, which passed 106-60 and now moves to the Senate, would require anyone wishing to wire money outside of the U.S. to prove they are either an American citizen or are in this country legally. Otherwise, they would have to pay a fee of 5 percent of the amount of the wire.
The bill specifies that the money collected would be used to help cover the state's costs for indigent health care. However, the provision is not binding because state law allows only certain transportation funding to come from a dedicated source.
Supporters said the estimated 225,000 illegal immigrants living in Georgia are costing taxpayers up to a $1 billion a year in services and are a major factor in overloading public schools and emergency rooms.
"The problem is real, the services that are used are real and this remedy offers them an opportunity to pay back to the system for these services,'' said Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, the bill's chief sponsor.
But opponents said the legislation is mean-spirited and seeks to punish hard-working people.
"What we're about to do is tax people who are doing the best they can to provide for their families,'' said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, the only Republican to vote against the bill. "I have a moral problem with that.''
Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, lectured his Republican colleagues for pushing legislation to allow counties to display the Ten Commandments at the same time they're targeting illegal immigrants.
"You can't insist on having the Ten Commandments hung if you don't live the Ten Commandments!'' he said.
Opponents also argued that illegal immigration is a federal issue and should be handled by Congress.
But Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, chairman of the Legislature's Immigration Reform Caucus, said the General Assembly is stepping in because federal officials have failed to do so.
"We're trying to solve the problem because the people of Washington are turning a blind eye to it,'' he said.
Before the final vote, House members amended the bill to exempt from the fee people who can prove they are paying taxes in Georgia.
However, lawmakers soundly rejected an amendment that would have increased the fee from 5 percent to 10 percent.