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Posted: March 31, 2011 5:22 a.m.

Senate panel approves immigration bill

ATLANTA - A Georgia Senate committee on Wednesday approved an altered version of a House bill that aims to crack down on illegal immigration but kept intact many provisions similar to those in a tough law enacted last year in Arizona.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, but the version that cleared the panel is a hybrid of Ramsey's bill and a similar measure sponsored by Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming. A House committee on Monday had gutted Murphy's bill and substituted the text of Ramsey's bill.

The version of Ramsey's bill that was approved by the Senate committee still would authorize law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of certain criminal suspects and penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, provisions also in Arizona's law. The new version also retains language that would require employers with more than four workers to verify the immigration status of new hires using a federal database called E-Verify. It also would make it a felony to "willfully and fraudulently" present false documentation when applying for a job.

The new version does not include a section that would have allowed individual citizens to sue local governments and agencies that don't use federal databases to check the legal status of new hires and people who apply for public benefits. Instead it would allow any registered Georgia voter to file a complaint with the attorney general if non-compliance with those state laws is suspected. The attorney general's office would then be authorized to investigate such a complaint and levy a fine.

The version of Ramsey's bill that was approved by the Senate committee also includes language from Murphy's bill regarding the verification requirements for contractors and subcontractors and adds language that says employers can't exempt the wages of employees on their state income tax returns unless they use E-Verify.

Ramsey said Wednesday afternoon he had not seen the new committee version of his bill but that he wasn't surprised there were changes, that it's all part of the process of getting a comprehensive immigration law passed.

"We're keeping the process moving," he said. "We're committed to getting a bill through."

Ramsey's bill was not originally on the committee's agenda for Wednesday but was added at the last minute. Some opponents of the bill decried what they called a lack of transparency.

"Obviously they're trying to hide something if they're trying to sneak it through, which is shameful," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "It's still an ugly bill. It's an Arizona-style bill."

Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton and the Judiciary Committee chairman, said in a statement that the committee has held numerous meetings on the issue and that Wednesday's committee action represents a positive step forward.

"Illegal immigration is a costly crisis that places an undue burden on Georgia families," he said. "We have worked diligently for the past year to produce comprehensive, economical and enforceable reform of our immigration system."

The House and Senate bills now move to the rules committees in the opposite chambers of the Legislature to determine if and when they will come up for full chamber votes. Murphy and Ramsey have both said a joint committee will likely be convened to develop a final product that can make it through both chambers.

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