ATLANTA (AP) - Democratic gubernatorial candidates Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor say they would have signed Georgia's sweeping immigration legislation, a stance that puts them at odds with many members of their own party on one of the most heated topics to emerge at the Capitol this year.
Cox said Thursday she would have signed the legislation ''reluctantly.'' The secretary of state said immigration is a federal issue that Congress should be tackling.
''I get angrier all the time that our federal government refuses to address this issue,'' Cox told The Associated Press. ''The best any state can do is put a Band-Aid on a huge and very complicated problem.''
Taylor, Georgia's lieutenant governor, said the bill improved dramatically as it worked its way through the legislative process. Provisions were removed that could have left immigrant children without health care, and contractors were given more time to comply with new mandates, he said.
''On balance, I felt I could support it,'' Taylor said.
But, like Cox, Taylor said the federal government needs to do more.
''The United States as a sovereign country needs to enforce its borders, needs to enforce its immigration laws and that is a matter for the federal government,'' Taylor said in an interview.
A top priority for Republicans this past session, The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act spurred protests at the state Capitol as it was debated earlier this year. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law last month, although most of its provisions will not take effect until July 2007.
Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey said the governor ''has led on this issue from the beginning.''
''Leadership isn't sticking your finger in the wind for five months and waiting for a poll to tell you what to do,'' Dickey said.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted late last year found support for tougher immigration laws. Sixty-one percent of the 501 likely voters polled said it is ''very important'' that the Legislature tackle illegal immigration. Another 21 percent said it was somewhat important.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Cox and Taylor took the only position they could if they want to win a statewide race.
Bullock said the stance makes sense now but ''could prove embarrassing down the road.''
Recent Census figures show that the Hispanic population is skyrocketing in Georgia and the Southeast. While the new law does not apply only to Hispanic immigrants, they make up the largest immigrant community in the state.
Currently there are 37,641 active Hispanic voters in Georgia, according to state voting data. That is less than 1 percent the state's 4.2 million voters.
The new Georgia law requires verification that adults seeking many state-administered benefits are in the country legally. It penalizes employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and mandates that companies with state contracts check the immigration status of employees.
The law also requires police to check the immigration status of people they arrest.
Tisha Tallman, counsel for the Southeast Regional office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she was disappointed that Taylor and Cox had come out in support of the law. She said their silence on the issue has drawn notice from the Latino community.
''It's good to know now where they stand on the issue,'' Tallman said.
That the state's most prominent Democrats came out in support of the law, she said, ''demonstrates that Latino organizations need to do more in terms of education to make sure that politicians know how harmful this law is to the future of our economy and Georgia in general.''
But state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, the most vocal opponent of the immigration bill, said Thursday he understood the politics of the move. A Taylor supporter, Zamarripa said Thursday he ''coached'' both candidates on the topic and counseled them to avoid it.
''It is absolutely nuclear,'' he said.
''This political environment does not allow people to demonstrate their depth of thought on this issue and so it just becomes a lightning rod.''
Cox and Taylor's remarks on Thursday came as congressional leaders in Washington D.C. said they've reached a deal to revive a broad immigration bill and could vote on the measure before Memorial Day. It's unclear what impact congressional action would have on Georgia's law.