Less focus on immigration likely at GA legislature

By Kate Brumback

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this May 10, 2011 file photo, a worker carries a bucket of onions to a waiting truck on a Vidalia onion farm in Lyons, Ga. Despite concern from some sectors about Georgia's tough new law targeting illegal immigration, legislative leaders and the measure's sponsor say significant changes to the law's substance are unlikely during the upcoming legislative session. Some south Georgia Republicans who voted for the bill said they've heard concerns from those whose work in agriculture and would like to see amendments made to help farmers.

David Goldman, File, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Immigration was a dominant topic during the last legislative session in Georgia and while it's likely to surface again when lawmakers return to the Capitol next month, it probably won't take as large a share of the spotlight.

Georgia lawmakers, like their counterparts in several other states, passed a tough law targeting illegal immigration earlier this year. Some south Georgia Republicans who voted for the bill said they've heard concerns from those whose work in agriculture and would like to see amendments made to help farmers. Secretary of State Brian Kemp said he'd like to see some changes to a section that establishes requirements for the issuing and renewal of professional or business licenses.

But legislative leaders and the law's sponsor say significant changes to the law's substance are unlikely.

"This law has only been in effect six months, some parts haven't even gone into effect and it's under a court challenge," Republican House Speaker David Ralston told The Associated Press. "We need to give it some time before we start tinkering with it."

Ralston said he expects discussion and consideration of some immigration-related bills during the upcoming session, including one that would bar illegal immigrants from all state colleges and universities and another that would require primary and secondary schools and medical facilities to record the immigration status of students and patients, respectively.

Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams said he wasn't aware of any concrete plans to propose changes, and Rep. Matt Ramsey, the Peachtree City Republican who wrote the law, said he doesn't foresee any tweaks beyond "clarifying and housekeeping."

In neighboring Alabama, which passed an even tougher law cracking down on illegal immigration this year, some prominent Republicans — including lawmakers and the state attorney general — are calling for big changes to that law. That's not the case in Georgia.

The Associated Press reached out to a number of south Georgia lawmakers who supported the law. Even those who had concerns said they stood by their votes. And Attorney General Sam Olens has pledged to vigorously defend it against a pending legal challenge filed by civil liberties and immigrant rights groups.

Sen. John Bulloch, a Republican from Ochlocknee in the southwestern corner of the state and chair of the agriculture committee, said the law has hurt vegetable farmers in his district because migrant workers were too scared to come to Georgia this year. Similar complaints from the agriculture industry have been well documented in the media since the law passed.

Bulloch expressed concern about the bill during debate in the Senate but eventually voted for it after working with the sponsor to make some changes. Though he readily admits that he does not like the legislation, Bulloch said he's not second-guessing his vote but would welcome an opportunity to tweak the law.

"You can't try to live any yesterdays," he said. "If I have a chance to make some changes to it sometime in the future, I'll certainly vote to make some changes to try to lessen the blow or take some things out of it."

Notably, he said he'd like to remove a requirement for businesses to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of new hires that is set to be phased in starting Jan. 1. That requirement creates too much red tape, especially for small businesses, he said.

That change seems unlikely. Ramsey has said from the start that the E-Verify section is the most important aspect because it will make it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs here, which is one of the main reasons they come. He said this week that lawmakers would consider "any common sense tweaks" to the law.

"What we will not consider is any changes that will diminish the purpose of the legislation which is to address the social and economic consequences of illegal immigration," Ramsey said.

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