ATLANTA - The Senate overwhelmingly approved a sweeping bill aimed at illegal immigration Wednesday after an emotional but relatively brief debate for such a high-profile issue.
Senators voted 40-13 to send the comprehensive Republican-backed legislation to the House after spending just less than two hours weighing the economic and moral implications of targeting both illegal workers and the businesses that hire them.
The measure goes after the estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants living in Georgia by requiring people seeking social services to prove they are either U.S. citizens or in the country legally.
It takes on businesses in two ways, prohibiting the state and local governments from entering into contracts with companies that hire illegals and denying businesses tax writeoffs for their illegal employees.
The bill also includes provisions increasing penalties for human trafficking, requiring law enforcement agencies to verify the legal status of suspects arrested for felonies and putting restrictions on "notarios,'' people in the Hispanic community who falsely claim to be lawyers capable of helping illegal immigrants obtain the documents they need to get a job.
But the sections of the bill addressing employers and the delivery of social services drew the vast majority of attention during Wednesday's debate.
Requiring employers in Georgia to verify that the workers they hire are not illegal immigrants is simply making sure they're following current federal law, said Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's chief sponsor.
Under the bill, companies that pay a worker they can't verify more than $600 a year wouldn't be allowed to write off that expense on their state income taxes.
"Surely, we should not grant someone a tax break for knowingly violating the law,'' Rogers said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson argued that the state can't afford to provide social services to illegal immigrants without depriving low-income Georgians who are legal residents of vital programs.
"Our heart has no limit, but our pocketbook does,'' said Johnson, R-Savannah.
But the bill's critics warned that cracking down on illegal immigrants would have economic and moral consequences.
South Georgia senators said they were particularly worried that the legislation would hurt farming.
"The vast majority of the labor our agricultural community depends on so much today are migrant workers,'' said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus.
"The first crop that's going to go down is Vidalia onions,'' added Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, the Senate's only Hispanic member.
Zamarripa, who worked closely with Rogers to reduce some of the bill's impacts, also questioned the morality of the bill. He said it would create fear among a group of people who don't deserve it.
"They're good, good people,'' he said. "They care about hard work, their family and their Lord.''
But Rogers said there are other victims who are suffering from illegal immigration, including a small-business owner who testified during a public hearing last week that he is losing out to competitors who keep their payrolls down by hiring illegal workers.
Rogers said concerns about the economic consequences of his bill ignore the fact that businesses that rely on illegal immigrants are flaunting the law.
"Have we sold ourselves out so far that a profit motive is all that matters?'' he asked.
Senators approved a couple of amendments before Wednesday's final vote on the legislation, including a provision declaring any property used in producing false identification documents illegal contraband.
But the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, to delay the effective dates of various portions of the bill to give business owners - particularly farmers - more time to prepare for it.
Majority Republicans also defeated an amendment submitted by Senate Democrats containing tougher sanctions against businesses that hire illegal workers.