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Senate votes to pass state immigration bill

ATLANTA, Ga. -- The Georgia state Senate on Monday voted to pass an amended version of an immigration bill that would require many employers to check the immigration status of new hires and authorize police to verify the immigration status of criminal suspects.

The bill proposed by Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, passed largely on a party-line vote, 34-21. Another bill proposed by Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, that has some similarities passed in the House earlier this month.

Presenting his bill on the Senate floor, Murphy said the bill is needed because people are frustrated with the federal government's failure to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

"The question is simple," Murphy said. "Do you want immigration reform or not?"

Opponents of the bill argued it would have a negative impact on the state's economy and could lead to racial profiling.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, proposed one of the most significant amendments to Murphy's bill. In the version of the bill Murphy presented to the Senate, employers who use certain federal work visa programs to bring in foreign workers would not have to use a federal database to check the status of those workers. Rogers' amendment would eliminate that exemption, closing what he said was a "large loophole."

That exemption was created so farmers and others who used the visa programs to bring in seasonal workers would not have the added burden of running new hires through the federal E-Verify database, Murphy said. Still, Murphy was pleased the measure passed.

Both Murphy's and Ramsey's bills exempt employers with fewer than five employees from using E-Verify, a provision they say is meant to protect the smallest business owners. An amendment proposed by Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, would have raised that to exempt any employer with fewer than 25 employees. Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, argued for the amendment, saying it would keep small business owners from being overburdened, but the amendment failed.

Both the Senate and House bills would authorize law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of criminal suspects who can't produce an accepted form of identification, which is similar to a provision in a tough law enacted last year in Arizona.

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said that provision would lead to racial profiling. Both Ramsey and Murphy have previously dismissed such concerns, saying there is specific language in the bill to prevent profiling.

The bill could have devastating economic consequences for the state, particularly the important tourism and hospitality industries, said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. Arizona has seen a loss in tourism dollars since its law was enacted last year, with many groups canceling conventions scheduled there, she said.

Murphy argued that illegal immigration already costs the state a lot of money and that measures to slow or stop the influx of illegal immigrants into the state would essentially pay for themselves.

Now that immigration bills have passed both chambers of the Legislature, Rogers said the bills will likely go to a joint committee to hash out some differences.

Ramsey's bill is twice as long and more comprehensive than Murphy's.

It contains some tough language and penalties not included in Murphy's bill. Ramsey's legislation would penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, a measure he has said is aimed at punishing smugglers and human traffickers. It would also make it a felony to "willfully and fraudulently" present false documentation when applying for a job. That felony would carry a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.

While both bills have E-Verify requirements, Ramsey's requires employers to prove that they are enrolled in the program before they can obtain or renew a business license or other documents required to operate a business. Murphy's bill, meanwhile, says employers can't exempt the wages of employees on their state income tax returns unless they use E-Verify.

Public employers and those with public works contracts have been required to use E-Verify for several years now. Ramsey's bill allows individuals to sue local governments and agencies that fail to comply with that requirement. However, those entities would have 30 days to fix the problem before a lawsuit moves forward. Murphy's bill doesn't include that provision.