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Immigration bill ready for lawmakers

ATLANTA - Georgia Sen. Chip Rogers launched his campaign against illegal immigration a year ago by seeking to deny public benefits to every man, woman and child in the state illegally.

He wanted to keep the children of illegals from enrolling in the state university system.

And he sought to prohibit state and local governments from contracting with any companies that hire illegal workers, a ban that would extend all the way down to the subcontractor level.

But the bill the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee is expected to consider this week says nothing about university enrollment.

It forbids denying public benefits to children of illegals and exempts prenatal care.

And it doesn't hold contractors responsible for the hiring habits of subcontractors.

"Some want to turn out the harshest penalties,'' Rogers, R-Woodstock, said last week, days after introducing the latest version of his legislation. "The reality is that won't pass. ... We're open to creating a bill that will get something done.''

Working with Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, one of only three Hispanic members of the General Assembly, Rogers has crafted a bill that opponents of his earlier efforts can tolerate if not support, without causing staunch advocates of immigration reform to jump ship.

"I don't see them as major concessions. It's more fine tuning,'' said Phil Kent, the Atlanta-based national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control. "Not everyone's going to be happy, but this is still an excellent tool to use.''

Zamarripa, who has been among the leading opponents of the Legislature's targeting of illegal immigrants, said he got involved in order to improve a bill that the Republican majority was certain to pass.

"I'm in the minority in the Senate,'' he said. "I don't control committees or legislation. Sometimes, the best work I can do is in modifying a bill.''

With Zamarripa's input, Rogers agreed to take children out of the provision denying taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants and to exempt prenatal care from the list of services that could be refused.

Rogers also has modified provisions that caused concern among business groups. Under the new version, contractors could not be held responsible for subcontractors that have illegal immigrants on their payroll.

The senator also came up with a different way of discouraging businesses from hiring illegal workers.

Instead of an enforcement-heavy approach that would force employers to function like federal immigration agents, the new bill uses the tax code. It authorizes the state Department of Revenue to develop rules to deny tax benefits to employers who hire illegals and pay them more than $600 a year.

"In my experience, the two public agencies that do the best job of enforcing the law are the IRS (U.S. Internal Revenue Service) and the Department of Revenue,'' Rogers said. "They go after people.''

The bill also has a new effective date, July 1 of this year instead of upon Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature.

Rogers said that will give Congress a chance to take charge of what both supporters and opponents of his bill agree should be primarily a federal responsibility.

Kent said he expects the U.S. Senate to take up next month a comprehensive immigration reform bill that cleared the House in December.

The House bill emphasizes enforcement by beefing up border security and stiffening penalties for employers who hire illegal workers.

But it does not include a "guestworker'' program sought by President Bush and endorsed by many farm-state senators aimed at making it easier for temporary workers to enter the country legally.

"It depends on what the Senate is willing to do,'' said John Stone, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Evans. Norwood sponsored a provision in the House bill that would authorize and provide federal funds to help train local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

Not content to sit back and wait for the Senate to act, the state House passed a bill last week that would levy a 5 percent surcharge on all wire transfers illegal immigrants send out of the country.

Senate leaders prefer Rogers' more comprehensive approach.

"When you look at the amount of time the House took on a relatively minor bill on immigration, you could spend the same amount of time on a comprehensive bill,'' said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

Rogers likes the logistics of his omnibus bill. But he's not dismissing input from the lower chamber.

"If any of the ideas that come out of the House we can work in, I'm open to that,'' he said.