ATLANTA - Legislation clamping down on illegal immigrants in Georgia and the businesses that hire them cleared a Senate committee Tuesday in a vote primarily along party lines.
Voting 6-2, the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee sent one of the Republican legislative leadership's top priorities for the 2006 session to the full Senate, which could take it up later this week.
The comprehensive measure would require adults seeking certain taxpayer-funded services to prove that they are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally.
On the employment side, it would prohibit government agencies from entering into contracts with businesses that hire illegal workers and deny private companies that employ illegals certain benefits under the tax code.
"It will be the strongest (illegal immigration) law in America times 10,'' said Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's sponsor, who researched laws in other states while crafting his measure. "None of them comprise everything we're talking about.''
However, Rogers did agree to changes in the legislation that would limit its impact on portions of the undocumented population.
For one thing, it forbids denying public services to the children of illegal immigrants.
It also exempts prenatal care and post-secondary education. The new version of the bill approved by the committee calls on the state University System Board of Regents to develop a policy governing enrollment of illegal immigrants' children.
"A lot of these kids have been in the schools since they were in kindergarten,'' said Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, a leading opponent of the legislation, who nonetheless worked with Rogers on many of the changes.
In keeping with federal immigration law, the bill also would not apply to illegals seeking emergency health care, immunizations, treatment for communicable diseases or K-12 public education.
Rogers also agreed to move back the effective date of several of the bill's key provisions, which originally were to become law on July 1.
The portion of the bill dealing with public benefits and the section on government contracts would take effect in July 2007.
The provision dealing with private sector hiring wouldn't become law until July 2008. It provides that companies that pay illegal workers more than $600 a year may not deduct those payments from their state income taxes as a business expense.
Rogers said the state Department of Revenue, which will be charged with enforcing that provision, wanted the extra preparation time.
"We bent over backwards to alleviate some of those concerns,'' he said.
But more importantly, the additional lead time would give Congress an opportunity to address illegal immigration.
The U.S. House passed comprehensive immigration legislation in December.
Zamarripa said 16 bills are pending in the Senate, all containing a "guest worker program'' for illegal immigrants sought by the Bush administration but not in the House measure.
Indeed, Georgia Democrats who oppose Rogers' bill - including Zamarripa - argue that Congress is the appropriate venue for addressing illegal immigration.
"We're trying to do legislation that belongs to the federal government,'' said Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, one of the committee members who voted against the bill Tuesday.
Rogers and other Georgia Republicans, however, say they're stepping up because the feds have been dragging their feet.
One other change approved by the Senate panel adds a new section to the bill targeting "notarios,'' people who pose as lawyers capable of providing documents immigrants need to verify legal status, which often prove to be fraudulent.
Developed by Zamarripa, the provision declares that activity a misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $1,000.
"The false-documents aspect of this entire issue is enormous,'' Rogers said. "It is something I'm going to continue to work on.''