ATLANTA - A bill designed to crack down on illegal immigration in Georgia that the Senate approved Monday includes some provisions similar to those in a tough law enacted last year in Arizona.
After nearly three hours of debate and several floor amendments, the Senate voted 39-17 to pass the bill originally authored by Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, in the House.
The most significant amendment was by Sen. John Bulloch of Ochlocknee. It removed language that would have required private companies with more than four employees to prove they use a federal database to verify the immigration status of new hires before they could get a business license or other documents needed to operate.
The bill still includes incentives for employers to use the system, saying they can't exempt the wages of employees on their state income tax returns if they don't. Ramsey, who didn't immediately respond to after-hours requests for comment after the vote, has repeatedly said the E-Verify requirement was the most important part of the bill.
The vote came the same day that a federal appeals court upheld blocking major parts of Arizona's tough immigration law.
The Georgia bill includes provisions that would allow law enforcement to verify the immigration status of certain criminal suspects and another that penalizes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants.
A federal judge last year blocked similar provisions in Arizona's law after the U.S. Justice Department sued, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution because enforcing immigration law is a federal issue. Like Republican lawmakers in Georgia, lawyers for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the federal government hasn't effectively enforced immigration law and that the state law will assist federal authorities.
Senate Democrats cited the Arizona decision as a reason why Georgia and other states shouldn't wade into immigration law.
"I think it underscores why we don't need to be acting on that here and we should be waiting until this is sorted out," said Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker. "There's no reason for us to be forging ahead on this to be simply the second state to go forward and spend millions of dollars litigating this issue."
Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, who sponsored a Senate immigration bill, said a joint legislative committee would likely be formed to agree the final draft.
"We'll try to work things out and get the language perfected," he said through a spokesman.
Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, said the language in the Georgia bill is different enough from Arizona's to protect against lawsuits.
"We have attempted to learn from that experience," he said.
Immigration has been a hot issue in state legislatures around the country this year after Arizona passed its tough law in 2010. In Georgia, supporters and opponents of the bills have been active at the statehouse and have stepped up their efforts in anticipation of the final day of the legislative session Thursday.
Civil liberties and immigrant rights groups on Monday held a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, some of them holding signs shaped like tombstones to emphasize what they say Georgia stands to lose if the legislation passes.
"We firmly believe that if this legislation is passed and if Gov. (Nathan) Deal signs it, our state will be littered with the tombstones of small businesses, the loss of conventions and tourism, farming and vibrant communities," said Lisa Adler of Amnesty International.
After the news conference, the activists delivered a petition they say has more than 23,000 signatures to the offices of Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston to urge them to block the legislation.
The Dustin Inman Society, which advocates for stricter enforcement of illegal immigration, urged supporters to call legislators, Deal and Cagle to urge them to support the legislation.
"We must make it politically impossible to not pass this important legislation," the group's founder, D.A. King, wrote in an email to supporters. "We must make ourselves more feared than the Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau or we will become Georgiafornia and our children will ask us why we didn't do something to stop the madness."
Various groups, including those that represent agricultural businesses, restaurant owners and other business interests have urged legislators not to require employers to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires.
The National Day Laborers Organizing Network and other groups last week sent a letter to Deal saying they're prepared to start contacting conventions, organizations, cities, and states that participated in a boycott of Arizona after that state passed its law if Georgia passes a similar law.