ATLANTA --- During their frantic final day Thursday, Georgia lawmakers passed a tough bill cracking down on illegal immigration, clearing the way for Gov. Nathan Deal to sign it.
The General Assembly had already tackled major legislation on issues including the HOPE college scholarship, Sunday alcohol sales and the 2012 budget. A proposal to overhaul the state's tax code fell apart in the last hours.
Immigration was the only big bill on their agenda the final day. The Senate voted 37 to 19 and the House voted 112-59 to pass the bill that includes parts similar to a contentious law enacted last year in Arizona.
"I think it's a great day for Georgia," said sponsor Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City. "We're real proud of the product. It's been a lot of work but we think we have done our job that our constituents asked us to do to address the costs and the social consequences that have been visited on our state by the federal government's failure to secure our nation's borders."
Deal said during his campaign last year that he would support an Arizona-style bill, but a spokesman declined to comment Thursday night on whether the governor would sign the bill.
A major sticking point in the debate was whether private employers should be required to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires before they could get a business license or other papers needed to operate.
Groups representing businesses, agriculture, restaurant owners and others had urged lawmakers to eliminate the E-Verify mandate, saying it would be too burdensome for employers. Ramsey has said repeatedly that E-Verify is important because jobs drive illegal immigrants to Georgia.
The Senate added wording Thursday that retains the E-Verify requirement for private businesses with more than 10 employees but says any company found to have committed a "good faith violation" of the mandate would have a 30-day period to come into compliance. The requirement would be phased in in three steps with all employers with more than 10 employees being required to be in compliance by July 1, 2013.
Democrats argued that immigration is a federal issue and that the bill would harm the state's economy and could lead to civil rights violations.
"You have crafted a bill that insists on demonizing people of brown skin and with Spanish accents," said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.
A group of about 100 people gathered outside the Capitol on Thursday evening to protest the bill's passage.
"I think it's a shame that Georgia legislators continue to push our economy over the cliff. This bill will kill jobs in Georgia," said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "We think the governor will act in the best interest of our state and veto this bill."
The bill also says agriculture is a "vital pillar" for the state's economy and that a federal guest worker program that allows the industry to bring in seasonal workers is "administratively cumbersome and flawed."
It includes a resolution that directs the state Department of Agriculture to study the issue and recommend actions or legislation. The study should specifically address the federal guest worker program and provide recommendations for federal changes to the law.
The Senate passed a weakened version of the bill Monday, essentially stripping out the E-Verify requirement, only to have the House put it back in with the exemption for employers with 10 or fewer workers.
The bill would allow law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of certain criminal suspects and to detain those found to be in the country illegally and would also penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, all similar to Arizona's law. It also would make it a felony to "willfully and fraudulently" present false documentation when applying for a job.
The Georgia immigration debate coincides with a federal appeals court decision Monday to uphold a stay blocking major parts of Arizona's tough immigration law. Ramsey has said the language in his bill differs significantly from Arizona's and that he is confident it will stand up to any legal challenges.
Georgia is one step away from joining Utah this year in passing a tough crackdown on illegal immigration similar to Arizona's.
Arizona passed a law several years ago that requires many private employers to use E-Verify.