Is Georgia's Immigration Bill a Step Forward or Back?

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While the Senate prepares to return to the thorny issue of immigration reform next week, states are fast becoming a major battleground over the divisive issue. Earlier this week, just as Arizona's Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed a bill that would have increased criminal penalties and arrest powers over illegal immigrants, Georgia's governor, Republican Sonny Perdue, signed into law one of the nation's toughest. It includes provisions requiring residents who are seeking state social welfare benefits to prove their legal status, as well as mandating that the police check the legal status of everyone they arrest and alert federal authorities to any violations.

The Georgia bill was considered so draconian, in fact, that it quickly sparked a diplomatic war of words. On Tuesday, Mexico's President Vincente Fox declared that Georgia's law included "acts of discrimination" and "half measures insufficient to resolve the complex phenomenon of immigration between Mexico and the United States." The reaction in Georgia to Fox's comments was typical of the heightened rhetoric that has fueled the Act since it was introduced at the beginning of the year. "I would suggest the government of Mexico stop concerning themselves with what we do in Georgia and instead worry about their own corrupt government," replied state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock).

Georgia's bill may be particularly tough, but it's only one of close to 370 immigrant-related bills proposed in 42 states across the U.S. this year. These include the Ohio Unity English Act, which would require all state and local government documents to be in English only, a Kansas bill that would dramatically reduce the amount of taxpayer money spent on social services for illegal immigrants, and a Maine proposal to require proof of citizenship in order to get a driver's license. Not all, however, are restrictive; a bill in Wyoming would increase educational opportunities for illegal immigrants. The reason for all this legislative activity isn't all that complicated. Says Ann Morse, program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, "It's the confluence of the sizable numbers of unathorized immigrants, the effects of 911 and the perception that we can't control the borders — and of course the frustration that the federal government isn't doing anything."

In the middle of an election year, it's also not altogether surprising that Georgia's GOP governor signed the Security and Immigration Compliance Act. Even though the state continues to trend more Republican, Perdue faces a very real challenge this fall from Democratic Secretary of State Cathy Cox, and the law commanded broad public support in a state with an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 undocumented immigrants.

Still, as tough as the Georgia bill is, it did ultimately include some notable exceptions. Residents will not have to prove their status to receive emergency medical care, prenatal care and immunizations of children, though cynics say that was done solely in order to withstand court challenges. The Act also targets big business, forcing employers to prove employees are legal and providing for fines if found otherwise.

But that may not be enough for Tisha Tallmann, Southeast regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She says her organization is still considering a legal challenge to the Act, in part because immigrants, she says, contribute some $200 million to the annual tax base, and should not be denied public services that they help fund. "Instead of waiting for Congress," says Tallmann, "Georgia has decided to take matters into its own hands, signing into law a punitive bill that does nothing to solve this complex issue." Unless Washington can finally tackle that issue, more states will follow Georgia's lead in coming up with their own solutions, however flawed some may think they are.