ATLANTA --- Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday sounded some notes of caution as he commented for the first time on the Legislature's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, saying he doesn't want Georgia to create any "undue burden" on employers.
Also on Tuesday, the head of the Georgia Farm Bureau warned against passing legislation that would scare immigrant workers away from Georgia. The state's $68.8 billion agricultural industry depends heavily on migrant labor.
A state legislative panel heard Tuesday morning from more than a dozen speakers during a 21/2-hour-long hearing on immigration-related legislation now pending in the Statehouse. Some of the speakers argued that Georgia needs to toughen its laws against illegal immigrants, worrying they could take jobs away from residents amid high unemployment in Georgia.
Speaking briefly to reporters Tuesday, Deal said he has heard questions about the reliability and accuracy of a federal work authorization program called E-Verify, which would be required for many private employers under some of the pending legislation. The program seeks to verify that newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States.
Deal said he has not taken a position on either Senate Bill 40 or House Bill 87, both of which are similar to Arizona's tough new law aimed at illegal immigration. Though Deal campaigned last year on bringing an Arizona-style law to the state, he suggested Tuesday that Georgia has limits on what it can do.
"What we have to be mindful of as we go through a state legislative process is that we do what is within the power of the state to do," Deal said, "and to try to facilitate those who are trying to abide by the law and not become an undue burden on those who are trying to do what is right."
Deal said he would investigate concerns he has heard about E-Verify and meet with the authors of the state legislation.
At the same time, Deal indicated he did not favor exempting certain industries from a requirement to use E-Verify. Senate Bill 40 includes exemptions for farmers and other employers who participate in federal guest worker programs.
"I would hope we could come to some conclusion that would avoid that carving out of anybody in any particular category," Deal said.
Deal took questions from reporters about the legislation moments after speaking at a Georgia Farm Bureau luncheon. At that luncheon, the head of the Georgia Farm Bureau forcefully declared that enforcement of immigration laws is a "responsibility of the federal government."
"Our concern with Georgia immigration legislation stems from the fact that legal immigrants might be fearful to work in Georgia if the state seems to be anti-immigrant," said Georgia Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, whose organization represents 400,000 families.
"If immigrant labor were to avoid the state of Georgia, there would be major economic consequences within large sectors of agriculture," Duvall said.
Duvall later told reporters his organization has not taken a position on HB 87 or SB 40. But he said E-Verify "is not as simple as everybody says it is ... I challenge everyone to go study that and see how simple they think it would be if you are a farmer working 16 hours a day and you still have to abide by that."
Earlier Tuesday, the House Judicial Non-Civil Committee heard from immigrant rights groups, Georgia industries, religious leaders, immigration watchdogs and other activists during its second hearing on HB 87.