Georgia Governor Signs Strictest Immigration Law in Nation

With the stroke of Gov. Nathan Deal's pen, Georgia has become the nation's strictest state on illegal immigration.

Deal, a Republican who campaigned for governor vowing to crack down on undocumented immigrants, signed the bill -- known as HB 87 -- into law Friday, calling it a historic moment.

"Today, we are taking action to uphold the rule of law," Deal said in a signing ceremony in his office. "This legislation is a responsible step forward in the absence of federal action."

The bill cracks down on illegal immigration by increasing some law enforcement powers and requiring many employers to check the immigration status of new hires. The law penalizes people who transport or harbor undocumented immigrants.

Last year, Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, signed into law a bill that called for making it a state crime to be in U.S. illegally. That bill set in motion a flurry of introductions of similar measures in legislatures across the country.

But courts have blocked portions of Arizona's law, characterizing them as unconstitutional. Brewer is now taking the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Georgia is one of numerous states where, as in Arizona, local officials have said they are frustrated by the federal government's failure to fix an immigration system that people on different sides of the issue agree is broken. Georgia is home to an estimated 425,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Georgia officials who supported the law said the federal government's inaction on immigration forced it to take the matter into its own hands. They said that undocumented immigrants were a drain on the state's resources -- including schools and hospitals -- and were taking jobs away from legal residents.

Activist groups in favor of more lenient handling of undocumented immigrants argue that such measures are overzealous and lay the foundation for ethnic and racial profiling. They argue that any reform must include not only enforcement of laws, but also a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria.

Most parts of the law would enter into effect July 1. But opponents have said they plan to file lawsuits seeking to block it. They say they have been working on a draft of a lawsuit that contends that Georgia is stepping into territory that is legally only the responsibility of the federal government.

“We look forward to stopping this unconstitutional law from ever taking effect,” Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Friday, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The newspaper said that the law's opponents want the U.S. Justice Department to join their effort to get a court to block Georgia's law.

"Arizona has become the capitol of prejudice and we will do everything we can to keep Georgia from heading in the same direction," said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network

"Our way forward as a country must be through policies that bring us together instead of divide us. We are certain that Georgia will see that as well.”

Adelina Nicholls, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said: “This action is not only an insult to the Latino community and other immigrants, but is also an exercise in cheap political pandering that will cost our state dearly."

But the chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Matt Ramsey, Republican, said: "We simply cannot afford to wait on solutions from Washington, D.C."

"We will continue to take decisive and necessary action as a state to enforce the rule of law and protect our citizens from the problems posed by the federal government’s failure to live up to its most basic responsibility to secure our nation’s borders."

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino

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