ATLANTA - The House passed legislation Thursday aimed at curbing illegal immigration in Georgia but not before tightening some provisions of the bill that cleared the Senate and easing others.
The measure, which passed 123-51, is on the short list of this year's top priorities for Republicans in control of both legislative chambers. Polls have consistently shown illegal immigration to be a major concern of voters in Georgia and other states.
The bill addresses criticism that illegals are draining state coffers by requiring adults seeking many public services to prove they are U.S. citizens are in the country legally.
It targets complaints that illegal workers are depressing wages and taking jobs away from legal residents by requiring companies seeking government contracts to verify that their employees are not illegal immigrants.
During a debate that lasted fewer than two hours, the bill's supporters said the state needs to do something to stem the flow of illegal immigration into Georgia because Congress has failed to act.
"The people of this country want our borders secure. ... They do not want to be overtaken by illegal immigrants,'' said Rep. Dan Lakly, R-Peachtree City. "The states need to rise up and send a message to the federal government.''
But opponents said the bill appears to be aimed more at punishing illegal immigrants than at reducing their incentive to come to Georgia by cracking down on employers who hire them.
At the urging of lobbyists for the farm industry, the House committee that approved the bill earlier this week significantly delayed the effective dates for the provision requiring government contractors to verify their workers' legal status.
Meanwhile, companies that are not working for the government would be subject to even less scrutiny. Under the bill, businesses that pay an illegal worker more than $600 per year would not be able to write that amount off on their taxes.
Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, who introduced a bill with tougher restrictions on employers, accused lawmakers of caving in to businesses that rely on illegal workers.
"We as a state can hold all employers in Georgia responsible for knowingly and willingly hiring illegal workers,'' he said. "(But) we don't really want to stop the flood, do we?''
Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, one of three Hispanic lawmakers in the General Assembly, warned that shutting off illegal immigrants from the work force would drive up the costs of food, building materials and home furnishings.
But Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, said illegals deserve to be treated as criminals.
"What part of 'illegal' do people not understand?'' he asked. "It's illegal to be here undocumented.''
While the House version of the bill takes a more lenient stand toward employers than the bill passed by the Senate, House members also inserted a tough provision originally passed by the lower chamber as a separate bill.
The provision, sponsored by Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, would require illegal immigrants to pay a 5 percent surcharge on any money they wire out of the country.
Because of the changes the House made, the bill now goes back to the Senate.
If senators don't agree with the House changes, as is likely, the two chambers would appoint three members each to a conference committee to try to reach a compromise.