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Far from Mexican border, Georgia mulls Arizona-style immigration crackdown

Georgia could become the next legal and political flashpoint over illegal immigration if it adopts an Arizona-style immigration law. But supporters of the dominant Republican Party are divided.

By Staff writer / April 14, 2011



Atlanta

It's little wonder that the Republican-dominated Georgia Legislature waited until the closing days of its session to take up HB 87, an immigration reform law inspired by Arizona's controversial move last year to crack down on illegal immigrants.

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Two tidal forces within the Republican Party are pulling at the Georgia bill, which has to be resolved by a Thursday midnight deadline. On one side are law-and-order Republicans who form the party's urban and suburban base, reacting to fears that illegal immigrants are in essence part of a large criminal cartel that siphons off billions in taxpayer-funded entitlements every year.

On the other are state farmers and agri-businesses, many of them financial supporters of the state GOP, who say the proposed requirements for them to check the immigration status of their quickly-hired field workers are too onerous and could, in the worst case, leave fields of Vidalia onions and groves of peach trees unpicked. Others worry that HB 87 could spark national boycotts – as the Arizona law did – and hurt the state's New South image as a diverse, newcomer-friendly place to live, work and do business.

RELATED: Arizona immigration law and illegal immigrants: state of extremes

That a Southern agricultural state may line up shoulder to shoulder with a Western border state with a vastly different economic and cultural history shows how deeply the debate over what to do with America's 13 million undocumented residents has cut into capitol dome politics.

The measure also promises to test how a bevy of new state immigration proposals will play in non-border states where Republicans are eager to challenge Washington on immigration enforcement and other perceived excesses and failures of federal power.

"What you're seeing in Georgia is what you're seeing across the country, where the demographics of immigration have changed substantially in the past 20 years," says Kevin Johnson, an immigration law expert at the University of California, at Davis. At the same time, state immigration laws "are a very difficult political issue to peg," he says, because there's dissension in both political parties over how to deal with the problem.

Bills introduced in 30 states

As of March, lawmakers in 30 US states had introduced 52 immigration-related bills, many including language similar to the Arizona law. Fourteen of those measures have failed and 36 are still pending, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures.

So far, Utah is the only state to follow Arizona's lead. Utah now requires police officers to verify the residency status of anyone detained for a serious crime. (Conceding immigrants' role in the agriculture economy, however, the Utah law provides a form of amnesty by making illegals part of a new state guest worker program – though legal experts say such a program needs congressional approval.)

If passed, Georgia's law is likely to look more like the one passed in Arizona, allowing law enforcement to question a person's immigration status based on "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the US illegally.

"It makes perfect sense that Arizona was at the lead of these measures, because it's ground zero for illegal immigration, but it also makes sense that Georgia would be active, because Georgia is now one of the top illegal immigration destinations," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that focuses on the consequences of legal and illegal immigration for US society.

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