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Immigration reform losing its momentum

The bloom is off the rose when it comes to cracking down on illegal immigration in Georgia.

Two years after passing comprehensive legislation targeting illegal immigrants, the General Assembly is showing less enthusiasm for what has been a popular cause.

When the annual Crossover Day deadline fell Tuesday night, only three of 11 immigration-related bills introduced this year had passed the House or Senate.

Two others are resolutions and, thus, not subject to the Day 30 deadline. The other six, by missing the cutoff for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber, essentially are dead for the year.

Advocates on both sides of the polarizing issue, who seldom agree on anything, dispute the reasons that the fight against illegal immigration seems to have lost some steam.

To Jimmy Herchek of Gwinnett County, a member of Georgians for Immigration Reduction, the movement is becoming a victim of its own success.

The bill the legislature enacted in 2006 contained several major provisions aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants from moving to Georgia. The measure made it harder for them to get jobs or qualify for taxpayer-funded public services.

"We've had some significant things passed," Herchek said.

But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the illegal immigration issue has lost its momentum as a vote-getter for Georgia lawmakers.

"That works once or twice, but not more," he said.

With the comprehensive reform law now on the books, legislators have resorted to more piecemeal measures to get at illegal immigrants.

Cracking down on illegals behind the wheel is proving to be the most popular. Two of the three bills that survived the Crossover Day deadline pertain to driving.

The Senate passed legislation upgrading driving without a valid Georgia license to a felony on the fourth conviction within five years.

It doesn't specifically target illegal immigrants, but supporters figure that's who is out on the state's highways driving without a license.

The House passed a bill allowing law enforcement agencies to seize cars driven by illegal immigrants either involved in an accident or during a traffic stop.

"I hope the seizure law gets through the Senate," Herchek said. "That would be a real strong deterrent."

But writing a bill aimed at illegal immigrant drivers is no guarantee of success.

Legislation aimed at illegal immigrants who try to obtain a license plate by fraudulent means missed the cutoff in the Senate. The same fate befell a House measure making it a misdemeanor for an illegal immigrant to drive in Georgia with a license from another state.

Two "English-only" measures also didn't get through this year.

In the House, a constitutional amendment asking Georgia voters to make English the state's official language failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

Late on Crossover Day, the Senate tabled a bill that would have prohibited government agencies from requiring employees to speak a language other than English as a condition for hiring or promotion.

Senators expressed concern that such a provision could hamper police investigations in neighborhoods with large numbers of non-English speakers.

"That was opposed by police chiefs," Gonzalez said. "It was tying their hands."

Besides the two driving bills that remain alive, three other pieces of legislation have a shot at getting through the legislature.

Two, however, are simply urging resolutions that wouldn't have the effect of law.

The other is a Senate bill that would prohibit Georgia cities from giving "sanctuary" to illegal immigrants by forbidding local police to question any suspect's immigration status. There are no sanctuary cities in Georgia now and, given the state's conservative political climate, none are likely.

Gonzalez and Herchek do agree about one factor that is diminishing the push for more laws aimed at illegal immigrants.

Both point to Arizona Sen. John McCain's ability to rack up enough primary votes to clinch the Republican presidential nomination despite having been a chief architect of a failed federal bid to give those already in this country illegally a pathway to citizenship.

"Plenty of anti-immigrant candidates were out there," Gonzalez said. "The anti-immigrant rhetoric isn't gaining traction."

But Herchek said as long as Congress fails to address illegal immigration, lawmakers in states like Georgia are going to keep at it.

"The responsibility should be at the national level," he said. "But they're not taking it."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.