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Immigration reform heads to Deal's desk

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON — Georgia lawmakers are cracking down on illegal immigrants, passing a bill similar to the controversial Arizona measure on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session.

House Bill 87 requires private businesses with more than 10 employees to use a federal database called E-Verify to check immigration status of new hires before getting a business license and other papers needed to operate. Businesses are required to be in compliance by July 1, 2013.

The bill would also allow law enforcement officers to verify immigration status of criminal suspects and detain those found to be in the country illegally and penalize those who transport or harbor undocumented immigrants. It would be a felony to willfully and fraudulently present false documentation when applying for a job.

The bill was met with protests by civic groups who say it will encourage racial profiling and business owners who say the E-Verify mandate is too cumbersome.

Gov. Nathan Deal told the AP on Friday he would sign the bill.

Newton County's legislative delegation supported the bill, with the exception of Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers.

"This has been an ongoing issue, of course. I supported the last significant illegal immigration bill back in 2006, and since that time there has only been indication the problem is more significant in Georgia," said Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle. "We have a larger illegal immigration presence than even Arizona, which is where all the news has been focused in the last year ... A lot of folks say that is a federal problem but the feds are not acting so it's up to us to do what we can at the state level."

Newton's other state representatives could not be reached for comment.

A similar bill passed in Arizona and a challenge by civil rights and business groups is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal appeals court Monday upheld a stay blocking major parts of the Arizona bill.

The Georgia bill sponsor, Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, said his version is different from Arizona's and he is confident it will stand up to legal challenges. Holt said a challenge to the Georgia bill would likely be "politically motivated."

"Inevitably, of course, anybody with the funds can mount a legal challenge. Whether the federal government will get involved, I don't know," Holt said. "The author of the bill made extensive efforts to do things to minimize the problem. He's a fairly capable attorney and he's had the advantage last year since Arizona passed their bill to analyze what the federal government has challenged theirs on ... so there are better odds of being able to enact this and go forward and enforce it."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.