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Immigration bill gaining more support

ATLANTA - Illegal immigrants are overburdening Georgia's health care system, undercutting wages paid to legal workers and contributing to the state's gang problem, supporters of a crackdown on illegals said Monday.

But opponents of a Senate bill aimed at people in the state illegally continued to hammer at the potential harm it would do to illegal immigrants and society at large, particularly a provision denying health care to those who cannot prove their legal status.

Picking up on arguments aired last week, they asked the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to remove any references to health care from the measure.

The committee heard from more than 20 speakers on the second of two days of public hearings.

Chairman Brian Kemp, R-Athens, said the panel would vote on the bill this afternoon.

The legislation would require state and local government agencies to verify the legal status of people seeking most public benefits.

Emergency care, immunizations, treatment for communicable diseases and K-12 education are not included because federal courts have ruled that those services must be provided to anyone.

In addition, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, has agreed to exempt services to children and prenatal care.

The bill also targets employers in two ways. It would prohibit government agencies from entering into contracts with businesses that employ illegal workers and discourage private companies from hiring illegals by denying tax benefits to those who do.

Last week's hearing was dominated by health care professionals opposed to the bill.

But on Monday, Dr. Geraldine Wade urged lawmakers to pass the measure to relieve hospital emergency rooms of an influx of illegal immigrants who use them for non-emergencies, crowding out seriously ill patients.

"They come in for minor ailments,'' said Wade, who has worked in several emergency rooms in metro Atlanta, including the Gwinnett Hospital System. "High volumes of non-emergency care are greatly jeopardizing our system.''

But other health professionals and their representatives argued that the bill's verification requirements would drive more illegals - not fewer - into emergency rooms because they will forego preventive care and not seek help until they're very sick.

"If we create a climate of fear in this state, we'll drive folks to expensive emergency rooms, where federal law requires them to see anybody who walks in,'' said Earl Rogers, a lobbyist for the Georgia Hospital Association.

"I'd rather treat them on the front end, when I can save a lot of money, rather than on the back end, where it's going to cost a whole lot more.''

Others complained about other aspects of the illegal immigrant problem.

Jeff Hermann, of Covington, who runs a landscaping business in Walton County, said he has struggled to make ends meet because he won't hire illegal workers, while many larger competitors don't have such scruples.

"It's hard to be a little guy ... in competition with people who hire illegal aliens and pay them $4 to $5 an hour,'' he said.

Two other speakers complained that illegal immigrants have contributed to gang activity, both in suburban counties outside of Atlanta and in the inner city.

But beyond any problems caused by people who have entered the U.S. illegally is the fact that they're breaking the law, said D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, named in honor of a 16-year-old Woodstock youth struck and killed in 2000 by a car allegedly driven by an illegal immigrant.

"(The bill) will encourage the state of Georgia to begin obeying the rule of law,'' King said.

Some of Georgia's major industries had problems with the original version of Rogers' bill.

But on Monday, representatives of building contractors and the state's carpet industry endorsed changes Rogers has agreed to make to the legislation.

For one thing, it doesn't hold contractors responsible for subcontractors who hire illegal workers.