ATLANTA - The state is forming a law enforcement task force to go after criminals, including illegal immigrants, who use false documents to get driver's licenses, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Wednesday.
The Republican governor unveiled Georgia's latest election-year crackdown on illegal immigration on the same day that Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, his Democratic challenger, began airing television ads calling for the state to abolish parole for violent criminals.
Perdue's initiative comes as repeated state and national polls show that voters want their political leaders to do something about the growth of illegal immigration. Yet, congressional leaders have all but conceded that they aren't likely to resolve sharp differences over House and Senate versions of an immigration reform bill before the November elections.
"Until Congress steps up, it looks like we're going to be left to fight this battle on the state front,'' Perdue said as he announced the task force during a news conference at a state driver's license office in downtown Atlanta.
The governor ran down the list of measures he and he Republican-controlled General Assembly have taken during the past year to address the effects of illegal immigration, including an executive order he signed last December requiring proof of citizenship from people seeking non-emergency public services and the comprehensive bill passed by the legislature in March.
Among other things, the legislation requires local law enforcement agencies to check the legal status of anyone arrested in Georgia for a felony or for drunk driving.
But the bill's Senate sponsors acknowledged at the time that it didn't address the growing problem of fraudulent documents being used by illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, which they then could use to obtain taxpayer-funded benefits.
And in recent weeks, a federal government report showed that Georgia has the nation's fastest growing illegal immigrant population.
The new initiative calls for the state Department of Driver Services to place an investigator at each of the 10 driver's license offices considered at the highest risk for fraudulent activity. Their job will be to review suspicious documents being used to obtain licenses and question the people trying to use them.
Three new Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents will be assigned to conduct follow-up investigations.
Perdue said he will ask the legislature for about $1 million to finance the project.
According to the DDS, 88 percent of the ID fraud cases it handled last year involved either a non-U.S. citizen or fraudulent foreign documents.
"It is simply unacceptable for people to sneak into this country illegally on Thursday, obtain a government-issued ID on Friday, head for the welfare office on Monday and go to vote on Tuesday,'' the governor said.
But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said anything that Georgia tries to do to solve illegal immigration is a "Band-Aid approach'' because illegal immigration is a federal problem.
"The (false) document issue is a big issue,'' he said. "So, let's move forward on something comprehensive at the national level.''
Both Gonzalez and the Taylor camp accused Perdue of making the fight against illegal immigration an election-year issue for political gain.
"He had four years to do something about illegal immigration,'' Taylor spokesman Rick Dent said.
Taylor's new ad, his first since winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary in July, proposes a constitutional amendment that would end parole in Georgia for 19 violent felonies in addition to the seven already covered by the "two-strikes-and-you're-out'' law passed during former Gov. Zell Miller's tenure.
Taylor helped steer that legislation through the General Assembly as Miller's Senate floor leader.
"These violent criminals do not need to be out on our streets and in our communities one second before their total sentence is served,'' Taylor said in a written statement.
The Perdue campaign said the governor introduced similar legislation back in 1997 when he was a state senator.
"He's just full of great ideas,'' the governor said sarcastically when asked about Taylor's proposal.
But Dent pointed out that Perdue's bill never became law.
"He didn't do it, did he?'' Dent said.