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Opposition to Crack Down on Georgia’s Illegal Aliens at Savannah Hearing

Category: Local Govts & Politics

By Lou Phelps

SBJ Staff

March 14, 2011 – A Special Committee on Immigration – put together by Democrats in the Georgia Senate to solicit public input - held a two-hour session Saturday afternoon in Savannah to gather opinion and reaction to bills termed “Arizona copycat” bills now moving through the Georgia General Assembly. The House version of the bill has already passed.

Republicans held hearings last year on the impact of immigration issues on Georgia.

House Bill 87, “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011,” has passed the Republican-controlled House, and is now before the Senate. It is considered one of broadest and most far-reaching of any of the immigration measures being considered in state legislatures in the U.S. this year. It would mandate the use of the federal E-Verify system for all but the smallest businesses in Georgia, and would authorize state and local law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of suspects stopped in the course of routine police work.

The Republican-led Georgia House overwhelmingly approved the measure on March 3 by a vote of 113 to 56, with the Senate working on a similar version – Senate Bill 40 - expected to come up for a vote before the end of April.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill out favorably on March 2.

In all, about 50 people were in attendance Saturday, many either from the Hispanic community, or professionals from the non-profit sector working with undocumented workers, with time for 23 speakers to testify in the two hours.

Several speakers focused on the economics of the issues, including the loss of critical tourism dollars if Georgia is “blackballed” by conventions and tourists due to a tough stand on illegal aliens, which has been experienced by Arizona and South Carolina. Other speakers pointed out the cost of lawsuits that have followed arrests by local police officers in Arizona, accused of racial profiling.

"Governor Nathan Deal (R) took a hard line against illegal immigration as a member of Congress and during his 2010 election campaign,” according to Immigration Walks, an organization fighting such efforts nationally. But in the past few weeks, he has made several equivocating remarks and so far refused to endorse either the House or Senate bills.

All but one of the 23 speakers Saturday afternoon was opposed to the bills.

What’s included in HB- 87 and Senate Bill 40

The bills will mandate the use of the federal E-Verify system for all but the smallest businesses in Georgia, and authorize state and local law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of suspects stopped in the course of routine police work. Several speakers criticized the well-known failings and errors with the E-Verify system, as well as the cost to use the system for employers. Only four states – Arizona, Mississippi, Utah and South Carolina – now mandate the use of E-Verify, requiring all or most employers to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm an employee’s immigration status.

HB 87 would require all employers with more than five employees to enroll in E-Verify, and goes even further than Arizona’s laws by requiring Georgia employers seeking business licenses to present a sworn affidavit attesting that they use and will continue to use the program.

“Also of concern to business are the provisions modeled on Arizona’s policing law, SB 1070. Like that measure, the Georgia House bill would authorize state and local police to verify the immigration status of suspects stopped for other reasons who are unable to provide identification. The request for identity documents could be made if the officer had probable cause to believe the individual had committed another offense, including a traffic violation,” according to Immigration Walks.

“Other provisions of HB 87 potentially of concern to employers include tough measures aimed at identity theft. An individual who “willfully and fraudulently” uses fake identification to get a job in Georgia could be charged with a felony and face stiff penalties of up to 15 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine,” they explain.

The Senate version is tougher, mandating E-Verify for all businesses with four or fewer employees and adding that companies that do not use E-Verify would not be able to claim employees’ wages of more than $ 600 as a deductible business expense on state or federal income tax returns. The Senate version, however, does exempt employers who participate in federal temporary worker programs, including farmers and seasonal businesses. And employers need not verify new hires who can provide a valid Georgia driver’s license or state-issued identification card – with the intention to shift the burden of verifying legal residential status to other state and county departments.

Speakers said that the undocumented community is already living in fear, and will leave the state if the bills are passed, causing a crisis in needed labor for several industries.

The bills are opposed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Restaurant Association, the Georgia Hotel & Hospitality Association and the Georgia Farm Bureau, according to Rodriguez. Agriculture is Georgia’s number one industry and it is projected that 50 to 70 percent of the workers are undocumented

Debra Savia of Georgia Southern University, a political scientist and consultant for both the poultry and timber industries in Georgia, said both are opposed to the bills. “’We need this labor. We need to open the state to more labor,’” is their sentiment, she explained.

She also said that the town where there was a well-publicized ICE raid at a chicken processing plant two years ago is now a ghost town, due to workers’ fears.

She also testified that the federal “Guest Workers” program is too expensive for most companies to use because it requires companies to provide transportation to and from the U.S., housing and other provisions.

She suggested the Senators focus on creating a minimum wage for the agriculture industry, instead.

One speaker pointed out the work of the Georgia Dept of Economic Development to recruit foreign companies to locate in Georgia. “There are flyers in small villages in Mexico saying, ‘Come Work in Georgia’ because we need the labor,” she said. “Which way are we going here?”

Another university educator, Sally Brown, reminded the Senators that there are 13,000 Latino-owned firms in Georgia, of which 8,000 are owned by Latino women. And, the Latino community contributes $253 million to Georgia in retail sales, income taxes and property taxes, adding that immigrants and natural-born workers do not compete for jobs, with undocumented workers often doing work that others will not do.

Other speakers sited the millions in payroll taxes paid by undocumented workers, as well as their retail and housing expenditures. “The issue is employers who fail to claim the workers as employees,” explained Bret Hulme, president of the Savannah Central Regional Labor Council that represents 35 unions in the area. “That’s where the focus should be directed.”

A Lone Voice for Immigration Enforcement

George Grady, a Vietnam veteran, was the only speaker in support of enforcement in some form, saying that he believed that young black males were the ones most negatively affected by the large number of undocumented workers in Georgia willing to work for lower wages, thus costing young black males jobs in the construction, hospitality and agricultural field.

He’s a member of a 7,000-member church in the Savannah area, with missionaries overseas. “Believe me, there would be 10 million immigrants from India here tomorrow, if we would let them in,” he stated. “When a young man comes out of jail, and can’t get a job, it’s because he can’t compete.”

He supports suspending a company’s business license for five days if they hire illegal workers, and a $100 fine for every incident, with some form of program that addresses the issue of the family of illegal aliens that have lived in the U.S. for many years.

“We have saturated the workforce in Georgia. If you reduce the supply of undocumented workers, the wages will go up,” he added.

Professor Savia, who spoke after Grady, said that some of what she had heard in testimony was mythology, not fact. “I assure you, the only people who are going to pick onions in 110 degrees in a field in Vidalia, are not Americans.”

Four of the select committee’s seven members were in attendance, Sen. Lester Jackson (D) from Savannah; Sen. Curt Thompson (D) from Gwinnett; Sen. Doug Stoner (D) from Smyrna; and Sen. Gail Davenport (D) from Jonesboro. The other members not in attendance are Sen. Jason Carter (D), Decatur; Sen. Emanuel Jones (D), DeKalb, and Sen. Vincent Fort (D), Atlanta.

Also attending was Senator Robert Brown (D) down from Macon, who is the Senate Democratic leader, and Pete Liakakis, chairman of the Chatham County Commissioners.

Jackson told attendees that they need to call the governor and let him know their opinion, and handed out his phone number – 404-656-1776. “And while you’re at it, call the lieutenant governor, too. His number is 404-655-5030.”

Savannah’s Senator said that he believes the number of calls to the governor about Pre-K education, as part of the Hope Scholarship and state funding of public education debate, is the reason the governor reversed his position on cutting Pre-K money.

Jackson favors the issuance of a temporary visa approach to illegal aliens already living and working in Georgia, as well as fines for businesses that do not declare workers as employees – thereby avoiding payroll taxes – and instead reporting them as independent contractors. “We want to move this state forward with a new vision,” he added.

While the session’s intent was to gather information and not make speeches, explained Sen. Thompson, he stated that he had serious concerns about the costs to taxpayers if the bills were passed, and said that he felt that if federal laws are to be enforced, it should be done by the federal government, at its expense, and not have the responsibility of identifying illegal aliens fall to local law enforcement officers, not trained in the issues.

A construction worker from Pooler spoke against the bills, calling his Hispanic co-workers hard-working – some of the best crew members that he came in contact with – and said that he did not believe that undocumented workers were competing with him for a job, even if they were willing to work for lower wages. Thompson asked him several questions about his opinion on the bills.

The Special Committee will hold its final public input session on March 31 at Georgia College in Gwinnett, and then prepare a summary report to be delivered to the 52 members of the Senate.

Editor’s Note: Local media outlets only received notice about the hearing a few days in advance and had limited time to report on the bills or the approaching public session. One person in attendance stated that they felt that the public at large was not aware it was being held or that they could speak – and that those in attendance were connected to the “network” of Hispanic residents and professionals who work in the non-profit sector with the Hispanic community – rendering the testimony unbalanced.

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