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When the subject of illegal immigration comes up, the states you think about first are Texas and California. Maybe Arizona. But, as of July 1, it...

When the subject of illegal immigration comes up, the states you think about first are Texas and California. Maybe Arizona. But, as of July 1, it is Georgia, a full thousand miles from the Mexican border, that is at the center of the immigration debate in the United States.

That's because SB 529, its new immigration law now taking effect, is the most stringent statute of its kind anywhere in the country. It is the sort of law that immigration hard-liners would like to see enacted on a national basis. Under its provisions, state and local government agencies have to verify the legal residency of benefit recipients. Many employers will have to do the same whenever they make a hiring decision. Law enforcement officers are given authority to crack down on human trafficking and fake documents. In sum, SB 529 touches every facet of state policy that relates to illegal immigrants.

The central question about the law is, obviously, whether it will work as intended and reduce the impact of undocumented newcomers on the state. But an equally important question is whether the political situation that led to SB 529 can be sustained and replicated in other places. The topic of illegal immigration has bedeviled virtually every state legislature and the U.S. Congress for years, without much substantive result. What made Georgia different was a populist uprising that all but forced the legislature to crack down on the undocumented community. If that sort of pressure gains momentum elsewhere, the near future may portend a series of state laws as strict as Georgia's - even if Congress manages to pass an immigration bill of its own. Oklahoma and Colorado have both enacted laws with some provisions similar to SB 529 - the question is how many states will follow.

If Georgia's experience does become a prototype for other states, it will be through the building of improbable coalitions and unlikely rivalries. In many places, the Chamber of Commerce finds itself at war with the Republican Party over immigration; Christian conservatives are unsure whom to support; and union members and African Americans are forced to reevaluate their ties to Democrats.

These rivalries played out in Georgia, where businesses did not want to be deprived of a source of cheap labor. "The concern," says Bryan Tolar, vice president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, "is that the illegals would still be in the United States, but that we might not have any of the migrant workers - those who are here legally and those who are here illegally." Even more than that, businesses did not want the state to turn them into residency-status enforcers, creating bureaucratic obstacles every time they take on a new employee.

But the Republican legislative majority that created the law felt little obligation to the corporate community. Senator Chip Rogers, the sponsor of SB 529, says openly that he doesn't care whether big business opposes him because of his immigration views. "I blame 90 percent on employers," Rogers says. "They're the ones that are profiting by breaking the law." He thinks many businesses, especially smaller ones, agree with him. They would prefer to hire legal workers, he says, and don't want to be at competitive disadvantage with those that hire illegal ones. He thinks industry groups are out of touch with the views of ordinary Georgians, including rank-and-file Republicans.

Nor did SB 529 owe its success to Christian conservatives, the other pillar of Republican political strength in recent years. Nationally, the Christian right is ambivalent on immigration, conflicted by conservative principles that say lawbreaking should never be tolerated, and Biblical admonitions to provide charity to the "least among us." Some religious conservatives quietly supported SB 529, but they were not major players in the debate that led to its passage.

So who provided the momentum for the nation's toughest immigration law? "It really was the people," says Phil Kent, a Georgia conservative activist who also serves as national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control. "It was people walking up to their legislators and saying, 'I'm sick and tired of what's going on in my neighborhood.' "

This line, echoed time and again by supporters of SB 529, is part bluster - almost every politician says the people are behind him - and part truth. The reality is that most of the powerful groups in the state, be they conservative Christians and big business on the right or African-American leaders on the Democratic side, didn't really want a crackdown on illegal immigration, but every opinion poll showed that most Georgians did.


If there's one person that Kent and Rogers have in mind when they talk about "the people," it's D.A. King, although he is anything but a typical Georgian. Since giving up his career as an insurance agent in 2003, King has been a full-time opponent of illegal immigration. From his home in a peaceful suburban neighborhood in Marietta, with an American flag flying in front and another one in back, King blogs against amnesty, organizes protests, writes a newspaper column and fields questions from reporters. When the legislature is in session, he spends most of his time at the Capitol in Atlanta. "My typical day is 14, 16 hours long," King says. "I work seven days a week if my wife can't drag me out on a Saturday."

Marathon hours not withstanding, there's probably an aspiring D.A. King in most states. What's unusual about Georgia is that legislators cared just as much about his views as they did about the views of Chamber of Commerce lobbyists. Matt Towery, a former Georgia state representative who now operates a polling and political news company, has as good an explanation as anyone as to why this came about.

For 130 years, Towery says, the business community in Georgia happily coexisted with the conservative Democrats who ran the state. But in 2002, Republicans took over the Senate and, in the biggest shock, Republican Sonny Perdue ousted Democratic Governor Roy Barnes. In 2004, the GOP completed its sweep, winning the state House of Representatives. The party now controls Georgia government in a way it has not done since Reconstruction. "When it changed overnight, the business community had a very hard time feeling its way around," Towery says. "Business doesn't have the influence over these new leaders."

Take Chip Rogers, for example. His soft-spoken style belies his populist political roots as a talk-radio host. To be sure, Rogers compromised a good deal with business groups to make SB 529 a reality. The toughest employer-related provisions were reserved for companies that contract with state and local governments, and they will go into effect incrementally. Only businesses employing 500 or more people come under the initial round of verification requirements. Perhaps most notably, the rules apply only to new hires - all those who were on the payroll before July 1 are exempted.

Even with the compromises, though, the fact remains that business in Georgia had to swallow quite a few provisions it didn't want. Rogers and his supporters were in a position of power, knew it and took advantage of it. The corporate community made little effort to campaign publicly against SB 529 and quietly accepted terms their brethren in other states would never have agreed to. "They're just afraid," says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "The issue of illegal immigration has gotten so poisonous that the business community is petrified and shaking in its boots."


Georgia is, in some ways, a special case. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, its population of illegal immigrants more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, easily the fastest growth rate in the country. "Georgia just saw such a rapid increase in non-English speaking people," Kent says, "burdening the school system, burdening the court system." The percentage change was great enough to fuel widespread public anxiety, while the total Hispanic population was still too small to carry much political weight. That is the perfect demographic scenario for a crackdown, but it is unlikely to occur in the same way in many other places.

In other states, where the numbers are less dramatic, the issue has been slow to gain potency at the polls. Ernest Istook, the Republican nominee for governor in Oklahoma last year, staked his campaign against Democratic incumbent Brad Henry on the immigration issue. His first radio ad was a country song with these lyrics: "If you sneak across the border, there's some help that you can get/ In a place called Oklahoma where you'll never have to fret/ There a man they call Brad Henry has some gifts he'll give to you/ Taxpayer money to pay for college and in-state tuition, too."

It didn't work. Henry trounced Istook, a previously popular seven-term congressman, by a 2-to-1 margin. Republican nominees for governor in Kansas and Arizona placed similar emphasis on immigration and failed almost as spectacularly.

But when the Oklahoma legislature met early this year, the climate of opinion seemed to be different. Both the House and Senate passed an immigration bill that goes even further than SB 529, although implementation of some of its most important provisions has been postponed until July of 2008. This was a complete reversal: Only four years earlier, the Oklahoma legislature had voted to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Oklahoma has not been hit as hard as Georgia by illegal immigration, but it does have some of the same political conditions. Republicans, who have been in the legislative minority for years, are now coming into power: They control the state House of Representatives and are tied in the Senate. And as in Georgia, the new crop of Republican legislators is willing to take on the business community. "Our state Chamber of Commerce," says Representative Randy Terrill, the sponsor of Oklahoma's tough immigration bill, "is an apologist for big business that seeks to employ cheap, illegal labor." Governor Henry, with some reluctance, signed the legislation.

Most other states, even those in which immigration has become a volatile public issue, have been reluctant to move in this direction. This spring, Texas legislators introduced bill after bill to place new restrictions on illegal immigrants, only to see the measures stall after facing opposition from the business community. Overcoming business opposition is simply not feasible in Texas the way it was in Georgia - at least not yet.

It's not only Republicans who have seen their party split over immigration in these states; Democrats are confronting stresses of their own. In Georgia, these stresses are most deeply felt among African Americans, who are generally sensitive to the problems of undocumented workers in menial positions but also worried that these workers are competing with them for jobs and driving wages down. In other states, such as Oklahoma, labor unions experience the same ambivalence. "They were staying out of the fight," says Mike Seney, senior vice president of the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce.

Michael Thurmond, Georgia's Labor Commissioner, is a black Democrat who has been elected statewide three times even though the electorate is now dominated by white Republicans. "There was divided opinion in the African-American community," he says in explaining the SB 529 debate. "There were some concerned with the economic impact, particularly as it related to jobs. On the other side, there were African-American leaders, elected and otherwise, who identified with a minority and saw in some of the advocacy latent, or not so latent, discrimination and racism."

Thurmond, whose department is charged with enforcing the employer provisions of the law, embodies this tension. He believes illegal immigration is a topic that should be dealt with by the federal government, and during the debate, he urged lawmakers to give smaller businesses more time to comply, a proposal the legislature adopted. But he also called for the legislation to be strengthened in a couple of ways. He referred to exemptions for existing workers as a form of "amnesty" and asked for money so his department could conduct employer audits, money the legislature hasn't appropriated yet. "We looked at the legislation," he says, "and felt like what may have been missing was additional accountability to ensure compliance."

In the end, most of Georgia's black legislators resolved their doubts on the side of opposition. SB 529 passed the House 119-49 and the Senate 39-16, but the Black Caucus voted overwhelmingly against it. Blacks, in fact, cast the majority of negative votes in both chambers.

Georgia's most visible Hispanic legislator, Sam Zamarripa of Atlanta, was in an even more painful position. Bitterly opposed to SB 529 - he scornfully refers to Chip Rogers as "Jim Crow" - he nevertheless worked with Rogers to soften some portions of the bill. "Remember the guys on the Titanic who were playing the violin while people were jumping off?" he says. "That's who I was." But his willingness to negotiate led to some significant changes, especially in the language on state and local services. SB 529 requires beneficiaries of these services to prove legal residency, but it exempts prenatal care, immunization, emergency medical care, crisis counseling and soup kitchens. Everyone under the age of 18 is exempted as well.

Zamarripa's compromises were part desperation but also part tactical. "My strategy then and my strategy now," he says, "is to give enough time for federal reform to step in and have the laws of Georgia surpassed." If Congress offers illegal immigrants a way to legalize their status, much of SB 529 will be moot. With the possibility of federal action on the horizon, he tried to give the undocumented community as much reason as possible to stick it out in Georgia until then. Zamarripa did not run for reelection in 2006 and left the legislature this January.


As the congressional debate on immigration stretches into the summer, states around the country are following it closely for clues to how the politics of the issue are going to play out. But they might be equally prudent to keep an eye on what happens in Georgia, Colorado and Oklahoma.

Until fairly recently, many state-level policy makers took the position that the immigration dilemma could be resolved only at the federal level and that state efforts to move ahead with their own laws would be a futile enterprise. Fewer are making that argument anymore.

In the end, all of the state laws could be preempted by federal legislation, but even if that happens, the states will have had a significant impact on the federal product. For example, one proposal percolating in Congress requires every employer to verify the Social Security numbers of new hires in a federal database. Georgia is already doing that for some government contractors under SB 529. If the congressional debate drags on for several more months, the evidence from Georgia on the feasibility of this requirement will be increasingly relevant to those working on the issue in Washington.

Colorado's legislation, milder than the bills in Georgia and Oklahoma, began going into effect last year. It was a compromise between Republican Governor Bill Owens and the legislature, where Democrats had narrow advantages. The toughest provisions focused on benefits offered by state government, with only a few modest strictures aimed at employers. At the behest of business groups, the legislature rejected a proposal from Republican Representative Al White to require employers to check the federal database for fraudulent Social Security numbers. "They heralded it as the toughest piece of legislation in the country," White complains, "and it didn't do jack squat."

The public perception, however, is that the legislation has changed the immigration climate in Colorado. Word circulated through Spanish-language radio that Colorado wasn't the place for migrant workers to locate. With 49 states to choose from, why would an immigrant without proper papers want to come to the place with what sponsors were calling "the toughest piece of legislation in the country"? That sense was reinforced by a federal immigration raid of a Swift & Co. meat-packing plant in Greeley, Colorado, last December, in which more than 250 workers were arrested. The consensus among those who follow the subject is that there are fewer illegal immigrants coming to Colorado now than before the law was enacted.

There are signs that SB 529 has created a similar perception in Georgia, even though it is just going into effect. Gonzalez, of the Association of Latino Elected Officials, says that home and car sales to Hispanics have declined precipitously in Georgia in recent months, and the reason is that undocumented workers are afraid they may have to leave the state. "Immigrants are making sure that they are able to move at a moment's notice," he says. "The market has completely collapsed." The Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also cites real estate as its hardest-hit economic sector.

What the longer term consequences of these laws might be is extremely hard to predict. When the Colorado law was under debate, its sponsors hoped it would save the state money by denying government benefits to those in the state illegally, but there is no hard evidence of this so far. At the moment, Colorado farmers are complaining of worker shortages, so much so that the state has been using prisoners as agricultural laborers this spring.

In Georgia, it's too soon to know whether similar worker shortages will materialize. Chip Rogers, the author of SB 529, thinks it's a mistake to dwell on the issue or even on the question of whether illegal immigrants help or hurt the economy or pay more in taxes than they use. "The law is not for sale," he says. "If someone is in violation of the law and they realize that Georgia is going to enforce the law and they make a decision not to be in Georgia because they don't want to abide by the law, to me, that's a good thing."

Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..
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