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County looks to expand checks
Authority allows for immigration audits

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County officials are applying to expand their authority to check immigration status before giving public benefits, at a time when legislators could yank state funding for those failing to live up to a nearly three-year-old state law.

Officials announced last year they would check immigration status of those applying for occupation tax certificates, also known as business licenses. Despite checking compliance since September, officials just approved applying for a new memorandum of understanding with the federal Department of Homeland Security last week to allow for the extension of the SAVE program.

Finance Director Maria Woods said the new agreement would allow for the licensing checks as well as other public benefits, although she said the county has no plans for expanding to other programs.

The previous agreement only allowed the verification program to be used for housing grants.

While commissioners approved the move last week, it must be validated by lawyers and other officials before being sent to the Department of Homeland Security, likely in about three weeks, officials said.

Anti-illegal immigration advocate D.A. King said the move will not make the county compliant with a nearly three-year-old law requiring the use of the program to verify immigration status of people applying for 84 kinds of public benefits.

"One can only wonder how many tax dollars have gone to provide public benefits to ineligible people," he said.

Instead, King praised a local legislator who has written a bill trying to create a punishment for noncompliance.

Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, has filed legislation to deny Department of Community Affairs grants to governments not in compliance with the law.

"We're putting some teeth in it that hasn't been their before," he said, adding that the bill would likely be shaped during the committee process.

The final draft, he said, could provide clarification on some issues with how governments have interpreted the law.

"I think it's vitally important to ensure we enforce the laws we put in place," Rice said.