ATLANTA — Georgia's controversial new immigration bill is now law.
Whether it will stay that way following a likely legal challenge remains to be seen.
Gov. Nathan Deal, calling it "a rather historic moment," on Friday signed the measure that cracks down on illegal immigration in the state by increasing some enforcement powers and requiring many employers to check the immigration status of new hires.
"While I believe immigration is an issue that can ideally be identified and addressed - and should be addressed- at the federal level, this legislation I believe is a responsible step forward in the absence of federal action," Deal said.
The new law was subject of heated debate in the legislature. It shares similarities to a controversial law enacted last year in Arizona and another this year in Utah. Part or all of those two laws have been blocked by federal judges, and opponents have said they'll sue to try to do the same to Georgia's law.
Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he's working with several national groups to pull together a lawsuit challenging the Georgia law.
"This law is unconstitutional, and we're going to try to keep it from taking effect," he said.
A federal judge blocked some provisions of Arizona's law last year after the federal government sued, and an appeals court upheld that decision last month. The state plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The law includes the following:
• Law enforcement officers now are authorized to check the immigration status of certain suspects and to detain them if they are in the country illegally.
• A requirement for private employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires is set to be phased in, with all employers with more than 10 employees required to comply by July 2013.
• It penalizes people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job.
Attorney Arturo Corso of Gainesville is concerned about the bill's possible effects.
"I think the bill is mean-spirited in that it not only attempts to marginalize an entire race of people but attacks their citizen friends," he said. "It deliberately tries to criminalize the citizen friends of undocumented aliens who want to help them get to the hospital or court or battered women's shelter safely by making it a crime to give them a ride."
Opponents of the measure say it could lead to racial profiling and could harm the state's economy, while supporters say it's necessary because illegal immigrants are a drain on Georgia's resources.
"When these legislators went on statewide listening tours, did the people of Georgia really want citizens to be criminalized or did they want common sense immigration reform that brings jobs back?" Corso said. "This bill is an empty piñata. Legislators keep swinging, but when it breaks, nothing comes out. There's nothing in this bill for the common man except one more way they can take us to jail or get in our pockets for money."
State Democrats also expressed disapproval amid threats of boycotts over the bill and their possible economic impact.
"During a record economic downturn that has inflicted our state with higher unemployment than the national average, Gov. Nathan Deal and state Republicans are doing their best to destroy Georgia's recovery," state party chairman Mike Berlon said in a statement. "By signing HB 87, the governor has enacted an unfair law that wrecks our agricultural, housing, tourism and poultry industries."
A group of about 20 people protested outside of the governor's office before moving outside the Capitol to join another several dozen more for an impromptu rally.
They plan a work stoppage on July 1, the day most parts of the law are set to take effect, and a march in Atlanta the following day.
"HB 87 was signed today, but our work continues," Lisa Adler of Amnesty International told the crowd gathered outside the Capitol.
Local and national groups have called on businesses, conventions and conferences to cancel events in the state and not to spend money here to protest the law.
Deal said he doesn't believe convention organizers and individuals will boycott the state.
"I believe that most people understand that a state that is doing what is within its power to do to protect its citizens and its taxpayers should not be at any point punished," he said. "The costs of illegal immigration, in my opinion, far outweigh any of the dangers that may be threatened by boycotts."
Groups representing the restaurants, tourism professionals and the agricultural sector have come out strongly against the new law, saying it will harm the state's economy.
"Georgia's going to continue to be a business-friendly state," said Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, one of the bill's sponsors.
Corso says Deal scheduled the signing on a day when he knew it would be less newsworthy.
"I think Gov. Deal is taking advantage of the age-old practice of taking out trash on a Friday," Corso said.
"He knows it's highly controversial, and nobody notices Friday news as much because they go about their weekends and enjoy leisure time. When they come back to work Monday, it's forgotten and it happens all the time. He wouldn't dare sign it on Thursday because then we would be talking about it nonstop until Monday."
Carolyn Crist of The Times and Kate Brumback of Associated Press contributed to this story.