ATLANTA — When it came time Tuesday to comment about a bill that would tighten Georgia’s rules on illegal immigrants, the state’s businesses, immigrant advocates, farmers, churches and local governments had at least one thing in common: They all feared the unintended consequences.
Their comments came during a House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee hearing on a bill proposed by state Rep. Matt Ramsey, a Peachtree City Republican.
Ramsey, who walked the committee through his legislation section by section last week, says the bill is still evolving and that he welcomes input from all sides. He has said the most important part of his bill would require all employers with more than five employees to verify the legal status of new hires using a federal database called E-Verify.
David Raynor with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce said compliance must be uniform to ensure that those who obey the law are not undercut by businesses that don’t. He also said businesses that act in good faith should not be penalized.
“The state’s business community should not be subjected to penalties and sanctions because an undocumented worker has gamed the system to receive employment,” he said.
Representatives from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association expressed concern about sections of the bill that would allow citizens to sue officials or agencies for not complying with certain sections of the proposed law.
That could lead to frivolous lawsuits that will cost cash-strapped local governments a lot of money, they said. They also encouraged exemptions for governments shown to be acting in good faith and said they’d like to see education and outreach efforts to inform local governments of their obligations.
People in farm-related businesses want to ensure that any new law doesn’t hinder Georgia’s biggest industry from growing, said Bryan Tolar with the Georgia Agribusiness Council.
“If we require E-Verify, we’re putting another layer of government on an already challenging work force,” he said.
Representatives from several Christian denominations urged lawmakers not to pass legislation that would trample the rights and dignity of illegal immigrants. They also expressed concern about a part of the bill that would penalize people who knowingly harbor or transport illegal immigrants, saying that could interfere with charitable work.
Judith Martinez-Sadri, reading a statement from Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said Ramsey’s bill would be a “jobs killer” in Georgia and would tell potential international investors that Georgia is not open and welcoming to people from other countries.
Ramsey’s bill, and another introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jack Murphy, a Republican from Cumming, would require law enforcement officers who stop a criminal suspect to verify the person’s immigration status if they believe he or she is in the country illegally. The bill would allow officers to arrest illegals and take them to a federal detention facility.
These provisions resemble parts of a law enacted last year in Arizona that were blocked by a federal judge after the federal government filed a lawsuit. Civil liberties groups argue those provisions are unconstitutional and encourage racial profiling.
Ramsey and Murphy have dismissed fears of racial profiling, saying the bills have provisions to guard against it, but Melanie Velez with the Southern Center for Human Rights said that language is insufficient.
The hearing on the House bill is set to continue Friday. Ramsey said he’s not sure when the bill might pass out of committee for a vote on the House floor, saying he’s still making changes and doesn’t want to rush it.