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Georgia governor to sign law targeting illegal immigration

By Gustavo Valdes, CNN
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Georgia passes immigration bill
  • NEW: Georgia's governor plans to sign the bill, his spokesman says
  • Georgia's anti-illegal immigration bill may be nation's most effective, supporters say
  • The ACLU threatens to sue; other groups plan boycotts
  • Georgia
  • Immigration

Atlanta (CNN) -- Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia plans to sign into law what may be one of the nation's toughest anti-illegal immigration measures, his spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Friday.

Unmoved by threats of boycotts and lawsuits, the Republican-dominated Georgia Legislature passed the tough law Thursday night, during the final hours of this year's legislative session. Robinson did not say when the governor would sign the measure.

"The bill reflects well the priorities and principles on which the governor campaigned ... last year," he said. "We believe that it reinforces the law in Georgia."

Among other things, the bill allows law enforcement officers to ask about immigration status when questioning suspects in certain criminal investigations. It punishes people who transport illegal immigrants during the commission of a crime and imposes hefty prison sentences on those who use fake documents to get jobs.

After the vote, the bill's author, Republican state Rep. Matt Ramsey, declared, "We have done the job that we were sent to do."

Ramsey said the bill addresses issues forced on the states because of the federal government's decades-long failure to secure the nation's borders.

The bill passed both chambers after lengthy debate. Opponents argued that the bill could encourage racial profiling and discrimination. They also said the measure could hurt the image and the economy of the state.

Supporters blamed illegal immigrants for overcrowding Georgia's schools and forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden of paying for emergency room medical care for undocumented residents.

"People come here, legally or illegally, to fulfill the dreams that they have for themselves and their families," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat and an opponent of the bill.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, a suburban Atlanta Republican who supported the legislation, countered, "They are illegals, they are going to use our services."

In the end, neither chamber's vote was close. The state Senate passed the measure by 37 to 19. The Georgia House, which provided final passage for the bill, approved it 112 to 59.

The Thursday vote marks the second time in five years that Georgia lawmakers passed an anti-illegal immigration bill heralded as one of the toughest in the nation. In 2006, the state Legislature passed a bill, later signed into law, requiring government contractors and public employers to run the names of people they hire through a federal database to determine if they are legal residents of the United States.

House Bill 87 requires private businesses with more than 10 employees to use the same database. The system is called E-Verify. The legislation enables state and local law enforcement officers to arrest illegal immigrants. It also imposes prison sentences of up to one year and fines of up to $1,000 for people who knowingly transport illegal immigrants during the commission of a crime.

Workers convicted of using fake identifications to get jobs could be sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $250,000.

The business community, including the influential agricultural lobby, strongly opposed the E-Verify provision. In a last-day compromise, however, House and Senate lawmakers added language to the bill exempting businesses that employ fewer than 11 workers from having to use the federal database.

Republican state Sen. John Bulloch, who chairs the chamber's Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, said, "in the end, I still don't like it but it's a good bill."

D.A. King, an anti-illegal immigration activist and longtime lobbyist for tougher laws, called the measure "one of the most well thought-out, potentially effective, immigration enforcement bills in the country."

"On the state level, this will set a new bar," King said.

Protesters held a candlelight vigil outside the Georgia Capitol Thursday evening. At the gathering, 7-year-old Jazlie Camacho, told the crowd, "I am here to make sure they take this law away."

Jazlie is an American-born citizen, but her parents are from Mexico.

Paulina Hernandez, a member of a group called Southerners on New Ground, said her organization will call for a boycott against the state.

"We are not willing to tell the nation that Georgia is a state worth investing in because they don't have the best interests of their people in mind."

Several legal and activist groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are already planning lawsuits in an attempt to block implementation of the measure. They hope the courts will agree with them.

In Arizona last year, a federal judge halted implementation of that state's anti-immigration law after the Obama administration filed suit. The president's lawyers argued that the federal government, and not the state, has the sole authority to regulate immigration.

Last week, a federal appeals panel upheld the lower court's order blocking the enactment of the most controversial provisions of the Arizona statute, which is known as Senate Bill 1070.

The court rulings have not deterred legislatures in other states from introducing copycat anti-illegal immigration bills. Among them are Utah and Indiana, as well as Georgia.

"The Georgia law is one of the best written and potentially most effective," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration control. The Indiana bill, meanwhile, has gathered attention because Gov. Mitch Daniels is considered a potential 2012 presidential candidate, Krikorian said.

In Indiana, Daniels would like to see a strong E-Verify provision, but is less adamant about granting law enforcement officers greater authority to question some suspects about their legal status, according to analysts.

Daniels' preference for the E-Verify portion over the law enforcement portion could be because of the recent court of appeals ruling on the Arizona law, analysts said.

"The decision casts new doubt on the constitutionality of the Arizona law, and will likely further dampen efforts to enact S.B. 1070-like bills in other states, where economic concerns have already caused state legislators to reconsider or abandon them," according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute.