By Jeremy Redmon
Gov. Nathan Deal has quietly signed into law a measure that will expand Georgia's sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration.
Senate Bill 160 is aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from obtaining state driver's licenses, state grants, public housing and retirement benefits. The bill will also prevent people from using foreign passports to obtain public benefits, unless those passports include paperwork indicating they are in the country legally.
Deal signed the measure Wednesday without public comment. The legislation expands on House Bill 87, a comprehensive immigration measure he signed into law in 2011.
The Republican governor's decision to sign SB 160 comes as national GOP leaders are recalibrating their positions on immigration following President Barack Obama's reelection win last year with about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Congress is now considering a bipartisan bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. The federal Homeland Security Department estimated there were 440,000 immigrants living illegally in Georgia in 2011.
About 1,500 people marched through downtown Atlanta on April 10 in support of Congress overhauling the nation's immigration system. Among other things, the demonstrators called on Deal to veto SB 160.
SB 160 is also intended to clean up several unintended problems created by the state's 2011 immigration law.
For example, the bill is aimed at preventing massive backlogs for professional license renewals. Those backlogs were created by a provision in the 2011 law that requires applicants to show certain forms of "secure and verifiable" identification every time they renew their licenses.
"This legislation fixes some of the unintended consequences of the 2011 immigration legislation," said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the governor. "This will restore efficiency to government services, such as receiving a professional license, while still safeguarding taxpayers against the costs of illegal immigration."
SB 160 would also require all city, county and state government agencies to make their contractors to use a free online work-authorization program called E-Verify. Government agencies with fewer than two employees are now exempt from this requirement.
Republican state Rep. Dustin Hightower of Carrollton, who sponsored similar legislation in the House, said he was pleased Deal signed the Senate measure.
"I think it will go a long way in protecting the citizens of Georgia and the taxpayers of Georgia," said Hightower, who served on a legislative conference committee that helped craft the final version of SB 160.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, criticized Deal's decision to sign the measure.
"It is a shame that Governor Deal continues to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment through signing SB160," Gonzalez said in an email. "The law will make Georgia more hostile towards foreigners and make Georgia less competitive in the global market place. When the national GOP is moving toward immigration reform, Gov. Deal takes a huge step backward."
Martin Lopez, an immigrant rights activist from Atlanta, was among those who demonstrated outside the state Capitol this month. He said many immigrants have been using their foreign passports as a form of identification because the state's 2011 law prohibits officials from accepting matricula consular cards when people apply for public benefits.
"I don't really know the outcome -- it is going to be big," said Lopez, who was illegally brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a child but has been granted a two-year reprieve from deportation.
SB 160 will take effect July 1.
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