In Georgia, Three Immigration Bills Pass Crucial Hurdle

Three  immigration bills have cleared a major hurdle in the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature, which had a deadline last week for proposed measures to pass at least one chamber.

But most of the dozen or so immigration bills that were considered in the legislature failed to meet that criterion.

Wednesday was crossover day, the 30th day of the General Assembly and the deadline by which bills were supposed to pass at least one legislative chamber to have a shot at becoming law.

Of nearly a dozen immigration-related bills, only three cleared either the House or Senate by that deadline.

Before the session even started, Republicans formed a legislative study committee of seven senators and seven representatives to examine the hot-button issue, soliciting testimony from various people and opening the floor for public comment.

Senate Democrats who argue immigration is a federal issue embarked on a listening tour after the session's start in January, holding town hall meetings around the state to listen to constituents' concerns. They largely opposed immigration bills that came up for a vote, to little effect because of comfortable Republican majorities in both chambers.

The Senate and House each passed separate comprehensive bills that would require many employers to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires and would authorize law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of criminal suspects who can't produce an accepted form of identification, among other provisions.

But those two bills aren't identical and a group of lawmakers from both chambers will likely begin meeting soon to hash out some of the differences.

Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, who co-chaired the study committee in the fall and authored the House's comprehensive bill, said he's pleased with the way things are going. The focus from the beginning was passing a comprehensive piece of legislation that would address the most important issues, he said.

"Of all the bills that were batted around in the House, this was the most comprehensive one and that's why it got the most attention and effort," Ramsey said of his bill.

D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, spent hours at the Capitol during the session. King said he was pleased with the passage of Ramsey's bill, which he sees as stronger than the Senate version written by Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, which also passed.

"The most important bill, the one that will help save jobs and the budget in Georgia and that will actually address illegal immigration, passed," he said of Ramsey's bill.

A lot of the smaller bills weren't as well written or researched, which could be part of the reason they didn't pass, King said.

Jerry González, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, has been lobbying aggressively against the various immigration-related bills proposed in Georgia.

"I'm disappointed any of these bills passed," he said. "I think fundamentally it sends the wrong message that Georgia's not a hospitable place and not welcoming to foreigners."

A bill that makes driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol a felony on the first conviction only for illegal immigrants cleared the Senate last week.

In Georgia, DUI is a misdemeanor on the first two convictions, a high and aggravated misdemeanor on the third conviction and a felony on the fourth and subsequent convictions and would remain so for everyone in the country legally.

Another bill that would require the written portion of the Georgia driver's license test to be given only in English made it to the House floor but was tabled after an amendment passed that effectively gutted it. If it were to become law, it would not affect illegal immigrants because they aren't eligible for driver's licenses.

A bill that would bar illegal immigrants from enrolling in state colleges and universities passed a House committee but failed to make it to the chamber floor for a vote by the crossover day deadline.

Bills that never made it out of committee include ones that would:

-- require K-12 schools and hospitals to report the number of illegal immigrants they serve;

-- prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving worker's compensation;

-- prohibit illegal immigrants from collecting unemployment benefits;

-- toughen worker eligibility verification requirements for contractors who receive public works contracts;

-- require jails to apply for participation in and use federal-local partnership programs that help local law enforcement agencies identify illegal immigrants in their custody.

"I'm very pleased that the school bills did not make it through because they were the most constitutionally suspect and most risked harming innocent people," said state Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, referring to the children of illegal immigrants who are brought here when they're young.

Thompson, who organized the Democratic listening tour on immigration, has repeatedly argued immigration is a federal issue.

Just because certain bills failed to pass either chamber of the Legislature by Wednesday and seem to have stalled doesn't mean they're completely dead for the year. Some or all of the provisions of those bills could be tacked onto another bill as amendments in the session's waning days.

Based on a story by The Associated Press.

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