Great immigration divide in Ga.

ATLANTA - One of the main arguments leveled at a crackdown on illegal immigrants passed by the General Assembly last year was that the state shouldn't meddle in a federal issue.

Now, with Congress struggling mightily even to get a floor vote on comprehensive reform legislation, supporters of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act are saying "I told you so" about the state law, which takes effect July 1.

"Georgia's put together the strictest package yet," said Jimmy Herchek, a member of Georgians for Immigration Reduction from Gwinnett County. "It's because of the federal government's failure to act."

But opponents continue to insist illegal immigration can only be solved at the federal level. In fact, they say the General Assembly has made the problem worse with a law that tells both undocumented workers and the key industries that rely on them that Georgia is going to be more hostile to illegals than other states.

"It sends a message that says, 'National companies, don't come here. We don't want your business. Immigrants, don't come here. We're not a friendly state,'" said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-based immigration lawyer.

The new law, a top priority of the Republican-controlled legislature last year, will require state and local agencies to verify the immigration status of adults seeking many public benefits and deny those services to those who can't prove they are either U.S. citizens or in this country legally.

Similar verification requirements will apply to many public agencies and private companies seeking government contracts. Agencies and companies with 500 or more employees must use a federal electronic verification system to screen undocumented workers.

Law redundant

Kuck said there's more bark to the legislation than bite because its verification requirements are already part of federal law.

"You can't get public services if you're an illegal immigrant," he said. "Since 1986, Congress has required every employer to verify the status of every employee."

But Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, who sponsored the legislation, said the state law will put teeth into an effort that has been lax at the federal level.

"What it does is enforce federal laws that are largely being ignored," he said. "Anytime we can send a message that we're going to enforce the law, it's good for everybody."

Several state agencies have been developing plans for enforcing the portions of the new law that deal with their duties.

Sam Hall, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Labor, said last week that Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond was still drafting his agency's strategy and wouldn't comment on it until it is completed.

On the compliance end, several representatives of businesses that will be affected by the law's hiring provisions said during a public hearing last month that they were comfortable with it.

The state Department of Community Health will play a large part in enforcing the provisions governing public services.

The DCH has some related experience, having been screening Medicaid applicants for immigration status since the beginning of last year.

But the agency has no way of knowing how many applicants have been denied coverage because they couldn't prove legal residency or citizenship, DCH spokeswoman Dena Brummer said.

The Georgia Department of Human Resources, which monitors the Medicaid rolls, doesn't differentiate between applicants who are declared ineligible for the program because of their incomes and those who can't meet the residency or citizenship requirement, she said.

Citizens affected

Consumer health advocate Linda Lowe said she suspects many of those who have been knocked off of Georgia's Medicaid rolls in the last 18 months are in fact eligible for coverage but couldn't prove it.

"Thousands of citizens lost their Medicaid because they can't produce in a timely way the documents that are required," she said. "It's really inconveniencing U.S. citizens and people born and raised in Georgia."

But Mark Trail, director of Medicaid for the DCH, said the same verification requirements apply to teachers and public employees enrolled in the State Health Benefit Plan. He said applicants who can't prove their citizenship are given up to 45 days to produce the documents necessary to make their case.

"I think the assumption that, just because they're on Medicaid, they're not smart enough to get the paperwork is degrading," he said. "I don't think it's an unreasonable requirement."

Lowe said the new immigration law likely will have the same results as the Medicaid eligibility crackdown. She said many people don't realize that the prohibition on public benefits to undocumented residents not only doesn't apply to children but also exempts emergency medical care and prenatal care.

"What people are taking away from it is there's a hostile climate toward them and they're afraid to go even when they're eligible for services," she said.

A much smaller group that will be affected by the new law are high-achieving undocumented students who have been qualifying for in-state tuition rates under a University System of Georgia waiver policy.

The Board of Regents' lawyers have interpreted a clause in Rogers' bill requiring the system to comply with federal law to mean the program has to go. A law signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 prohibits colleges from offering public benefits to illegal immigrants.

"Why should taxpayers have to subsidize the education of someone who is not eligible to work after they graduate?" Rogers asked.

But former Sen. Sam Zamarripa, an Atlanta Democrat who worked with Rogers on some compromise provisions that went into the bill, said 10 states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, despite the presence of the federal law.

Zamarripa said the university system has the power to keep the waiver program if the Board of Regents wanted to.

"The Regents are independent constitutionally and can make their own decisions," he said. "This is a cruel outcome that ... is going to embarrass them."

Perception over reality

As with the provisions governing public services, the law's critics acknowledge that the crackdown on hiring practices won't change what's already in federal law.

But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the perception of the new law among Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, is going to have grave consequences for Georgia.

He said the scramble to enforce the law is going to lead to abuses, contributing to an atmosphere of hostility that could drive large numbers of Latino workers out of the state.

Gonzalez said industries from farming to poultry production to construction could be hurt severely because they won't be left with enough workers.

"I don't think Senator Rogers is going to go to Vidalia to pick onions or get his hands dirty plucking chickens," he said.

But Herchek, the anti-illegal immigration activist, said such fears are vastly overblown.

"It's the same argument, if you go back 150 years, for having slavery in the South," he said. "We got rid of slavery and are better off for it. We'll be much better off for getting rid of illegal immigration."

Herchek said he would have liked to see the legislature enact an even stronger law.

While the bill contains provisions aimed at discouraging private employers from hiring illegal workers, only those that do business with the government are expressly prohibited from doing so.

Even that restriction is being phased in over three years. Starting next July, the bar will be lowered from public agencies and companies with 500 or more employees to those with 100 or more workers. It won't apply to all public agencies and companies seeking government contracts until July 2009.

"We thought it was proper for the largest companies that have the human resources to do it first and see how they handle it," Rogers said.

Even if Congress continues to dawdle and leaves Georgia to craft immigration policy on its own, there's no guarantee that the state eventually will extend the hiring crackdown fully to the private sector.

But Herchek said he likes what the General Assembly has set in motion.

"It sends a strong signal that this is the direction we're headed," he said. "It gives everybody fair warning."