Georgia joins mounting red state backlash to Obama immigration reform

In the same week that President Obama tried to lay out a middle path to immigration reform, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill that takes a tough line on illegal immigration.

By , Staff writer

Three days after President Obama mocked Republicans as being unreasonable in the national immigration-reform debate, at least one Republican governor doubled down Friday, signing an Arizona-style immigration law in protest against what he deems failed federal policies.

The Georgia immigration law signed by Gov. Nathan Deal is a red-state rejoinder to Mr. Obama's insistence that some path to citizenship should be a part of any federal immigration reform. It gives state police more power to pinpoint people who are in the state illegally and forces larger agribusinesses to run employees' names through a federal database to verify their eligibility to work legally inside the United States.

That such a bill passed in Georgia – alienating the state's powerful agribusiness lobby, tourism officials, and a nascent Latino population – is a testament to the symbolic power that Governor Deal and other Republican legislators have invested in the issue. Indeed, with courts likely to strike down the more controversial parts of the law – as they have in Arizona and Utah – the symbolism of tilting at an allegedly out of touch Washington is perhaps the primary reason for passing the bill.

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This symbolism in the immigration debate is exerting an increasingly powerful sway over the Republican Party, with similar bills churning in Alabama and Florida. And with a presidential election looming, Deal and his gubernatorial colleagues could yet see their law-and-order approach to immigration reform become a litmus test for Republican candidates.

"The divide in terms of the direction of immigration reform is in part a reflection of the fact that we have a stalemate in Congress," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "So now we have more-conservative states in the South and West moving [toward] tough anti-immigration statutes," and, as a result, "the Republican party has moved increasingly toward this sort of hardline approach."

Politics or upholding the rule of law?

Obama tried to exploit that for his political gain in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday as he reached out for the Latino vote.

To be sure, the president has a mixed record on illegal immigration, having deported more illegal immigrants in a single year than any other president. Obama has also completed a federal border fence and doubled the number of Border Patrol agents along the border. But he suggested mockingly on Tuesday that even this was not enough for Republicans, who are ultimately not interested in tackling illegal immigration in a serious way, he said.

"They'll say we need to triple the border patrol, or quadruple the border patrol," the president said. "They'll say we need a higher fence to support reform. Maybe they'll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat. They'll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That's politics."

Deal has a different take on the Republican line. "Today, we are taking action to uphold the rule of law," Deal said of the Georgia bill Friday.

The bill is an undeniably strong political statement. It was passed not only despite legal concerns that it impinges on federal primacy of immigration policy, but also despite strong opposition among key constituencies in his own state. While the Latino vote is still weak – making up 3 percent of the voting public – the state's agricultural interests hold significant sway.

Impact of the Georgia bill

That Georgia Republicans were insistent on passing the law despite these hurdles suggests that Republican presidential candidates might have to toe the same policy line in the South and West or risk alienating conservative voters in those areas.

For one, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), whose name is mentioned as a possible Republican candidate, would have to explain why he demanded the legislature drop a law-enforcement component from two immigration reform bills he signed Tuesday. The Indiana bills, in essence, compel most businesses to verify the residency status of workers and make undocumented immigrants ineligible to receive college tuition and state welfare benefits.

The greatest impact of the Georgia bill might be on the national debate, not on illegal immigration in Georgia. The bill's sponsors, though they tweaked language that federal appeals courts have now twice struck down in the Arizona bill, don't seem overly concerned about the law's constitutionality, which the state will likely have to defend in court.

"Part of the calculation," suggests Professor Abramowitz, "is that they're expecting parts of it to get thrown out."

The Georgia law could, however, pave the way for other states to challenge Washington's immigration policy – and, by extension, Obama's border stance. In that way, the Georgia immigration law offers a gauge of the political landscape heading into the 2012 election, with Deal, for one, willing to invite the wrath of farmers and potential tourist and convention boycotts in order to raise the stakes of the immigration debate.

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