New bills target illegal immigrants, sex offenders

ATLANTA - Republican state senators Thursday picked up the fight against illegal immigrants and sexual predators that they began last winter.

Two GOP senators pre-filed bills that would prohibit anyone in the United States illegally from receiving any property tax exemptions and that would bar convicted sex offenders from photographing minors for any reason.

The two measures were the first introduced into the Senate for the 2007 session, which starts Jan. 8.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted comprehensive immigration reform legislation last winter denying a host of taxpayer-funded services to people who can't prove that they are in this country legally.

But last week's elections in Georgia, which returned GOP majorities to the House and Senate, demonstrated that voters remain concerned about illegal immigration, said Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, the new bill's sponsor.

"It's something I made a central focus of my campaign, and I won by a comfortable margin,'' he said. "I'm going to take that as a green light to move forward with it.''

But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, pointed to exit polling conducted on Election Day showing that most Georgia voters would prefer to see Congress handle illegal immigration.

He said last week's congressional elections, which saw Democrats take power in the House and Senate, increase the chances that lawmakers in Washington will break the logjam that prevented action on a comprehensive federal bill this year.

"State legislators need to be careful in overreaching,'' Gonzalez said. "Congress is poised to come up with a real solution.''

The new sex offender bill also is a followup to broader action by the legislature during the 2006 session. Lawmakers passed a bill that lengthened prison sentences for sex criminals who prey upon children and, once released, increased restrictions on where they could live and work.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson said he saw a need for further action after a constituent told him about an incident involving her teenage daughter, who was approached by a stranger at a coffee shop where she was working. The man began photographing her and showing the pictures to customers.

When her concerned parents reported it to police, the man was identified as a sex offender from another state. However, nothing could be done because there wasn't a law in Georgia against convicted sex offenders photographing a minor.

"Some of the best legislation comes about because of regular Georgia citizens,'' said Johnson, R-Savannah. "We want to make sure that this doesn't happen to any other young Georgian.''

But Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said the bill's no-exception approach would go too far.

"There's thousands of people on the (sex offender) registry who are parents,'' she said.

Even as her organization prepares to oppose the new bill, a lawsuit filed against this year's sex offender law remains pending.

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order last summer preventing authorities from enforcing a provision in the law prohibiting convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.