Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Georgia governor signs sweeping immigration law

Georgia governor signs sweeping immigration law
By Karen Jacobs

ATLANTA (Reuters) - The state of Georgia approved a sweeping measure on Monday to crack down on illegal immigrants, while in a sign of the national division on the issue, Arizona's governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed undocumented workers to be prosecuted as trespassers.

The moves come as the federal government and states consider how to deal with an estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers while immigrants, many of whom are Hispanic, are displaying their political power through mass demonstrations in cities across the United States.

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, signed into law by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, denies many state services paid for by taxpayers to people who are in the United States illegally.

It also forces contractors doing business with the state to verify the legal status of new workers, and requires police to notify immigration officials if people charged with crimes are illegal immigrants.

"It's our responsibility to ensure that our famous Georgia hospitality is not abused, that our taxpayers are not taken advantage of and that our citizens are protected," Perdue said before signing the law.

But Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, backed by key law enforcement officials, vetoed the bill in her state, the nation's hot spot for illegal crossing of the roughly 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, saying there were no resources to pay police and prosecutors for an increased burden.

Under the proposal, first-time offenders would have faced a misdemeanor charge and up to six months in jail. A second offense would have been a felony, punishable by up to one year in jail.

Arizona officials also were concerned about its effect in the community.

"There is a real concern that crimes will go unreported by immigrants for fear that they would be turned into federal agents," said Wendy Balazik, a spokeswoman for the 20,000-member International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Law enforcement would lose valuable information."

But state Rep. Russell Pearce said the governor needs to take a stand to slow the flow into Arizona.

"It is a federal responsibility, it is everyone's responsibility," said Pearce, a Republican behind several bills targeting immigrants. "When are we going to wake up and start enforcing the law?"


Other provisions of the Georgia law prohibit employers from claiming a tax deduction for wages of $600 or more paid to undocumented workers, impose prison terms for human trafficking and limit the services commercial companies can provide to illegal immigrants.

Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated at rallies in major U.S. cities in recent weeks demanding rights for illegal immigrants in the United States.

"It's a punitive bill," said Sara Gonzalez, president and chief executive of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "This is a very complicated issue, and I don't see any good coming out of this."

Outside the Georgia Capitol, a few demonstrators cheered when word spread that the immigration bill had been signed. The measure had garnered overwhelming support in both houses of Georgia's Republican-controlled Legislature.

"If you are not a U.S. citizen, you should not receive a U.S. benefit," said Steve Bray, a Georgia resident who was waving a U.S. flag and said he supports legal immigration.

(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix)