Opponents attack bill on immigration to deny illegal aliens benefits

ATLANTA - Civil rights advocates and health care professionals Tuesday assailed a Senate bill targeting illegal immigration as unrealistic and inhumane.

The legislation seeks to deny public benefits to illegal aliens, discourage employers from hiring illegal workers and make it easier for local authorities to finger illegal immigrants.

But physicians, sworn to uphold the Hippocratic oath to treat all patients, don't want any part of it, Dr. Jason Prystowski told a Senate committee.

"When someone comes to my emergency room, I don't ask them if they're a citizen or not,'' he said. "I just ask them where it hurts.''

Citing a wave of illegal immigration that has caused growing unrest among voters, Republican leaders are making the issue a top priority.

"It is a topic that has come to the forefront nationally ... that a lot of people want to see action on,'' said Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's sponsor.

Under the Senate measure, anyone seeking certain public benefits in Georgia would have to prove he or she is a U.S. citizen or in the country legally.

Federal courts have ruled that illegal immigrants can not be deprived of emergency room care, immunizations or K-12 education. Since introducing the bill, Rogers also has agreed to exempt children and prenatal care from the provision.

The legislation also would prohibit government agencies from entering into contracts with businesses that hire illegal workers. Private companies would be discouraged from employing illegal immigrants through a provision denying tax benefits to those who do.

And the bill would require anyone arrested in Georgia to show documentation proving they are legal residents.

Tisha Tallman, Southeastern regional director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued that the bill is unconstitutional because only the federal government can set immigration policy. She said it's also unrealistic to expect state and local government workers to determine the immigration status of those seeking services.

But Rogers said the federal government has authorized states and localities to enforce immigration law through federal verification programs that offer 24-hour service. The bill requires both employers and police to use those programs in screening potential employees or criminal suspects.

Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, one of three Hispanics in the legislature, offered several amendments to soften the bill's impact.

Zamarripa, who has worked closely with Rogers on the measure, asked the committee to support exempting post-secondary education from the services the state could deny.

Zamarripa also proposed cracking down on "notarios'' who provide illegal immigrants with false documents.