By a largely party-line vote of 113-56, the Republican-controlled chamber approved House Bill 87, also called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011.
The 22-page bill now moves to the Senate, where a committee endorsed a similar but shorter measure Wednesday. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal campaigned last year on curbing illegal immigration in Georgia, but he has not yet taken a position on the House and Senate bills.
Like the groundbreaking law Arizona enacted last year, HB 87 would authorize state and local police to verify the immigration status of certain suspects. A federal judge halted a similar provision in Arizona last year after the Obama administration argued it is pre-empted by federal law. Arizona is appealing that judge's decision.
Hundreds of demonstrators -- a loose coalition of black and Latino civil rights groups, labor unions and national groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union -- gathered outside the state Capitol during the House debate Thursday to denounce the measure as an "Arizona copycat law" and call on Deal to veto it if it comes to his desk. They said the measure is irresponsible and would turn Georgia into a "show-me-your-papers state, reminiscent of slavery and Jim Crow times."
Supporters of HB 87, meanwhile, argued the state must act because the federal government has failed to adequately seal its borders and enforce the nation's immigration laws. Georgia has the ninth-largest population among states, but it is home to the seventh-largest number of illegal immigrants, estimated at 425,000, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a report released last month.
Critics say illegal immigrants are burdening Georgia's hospitals, jails and public schools and taking jobs here amid high unemployment.
"No doubt about it. Our federal government has failed us, and our citizens in Georgia are suffering the consequences," Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City, the bill's sponsor, told the House at the start of more than two hours of debate.
Ramsey has said he has worked on more than 16 drafts of the legislation, partly to protect it against potential court challenges. The ACLU called the measure unconstitutional last month and threatened to challenge it in court if it is enacted.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said Thursday that the governor's office will closely watch the bill, which he said "still has a ways to go" through the legislative process.
About 30 protesters attempted to deliver a poster board letter to Deal that was signed by demonstrators asking the governor to veto the bill. They were stopped by Georgia state troopers at the west entrance to the Capitol. After some negotiation, two members of the group were allowed to hand the letter to a receptionist in the governor's office. Deal did not meet with the group, and it was unclear whether he was aware they were there.
Asked about the call for Deal to veto the legislation, Robinson said: "We can't veto something that is not on our desk."
Democrats vigorously fought HB 87 on the House floor Thursday, arguing it would damage Georgia's agricultural and tourism industries and force the state to defend itself against costly court challenges. Some called it un-American.
"Do we really believe now is the time to create a gestapo state, where every person who looks or sounds (like) or has the surname of an immigrant must provide papers -- as in South Africa -- to prove their citizenship or legal residence?" said Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth.
Among other things, HB 87 would punish certain people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants here. It would require many private employers to verify their newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States. It would empower people to sue local and state government officials who don't enforce existing state laws aimed at illegal immigration. And it would penalizes people who "willfully and fraudulently" use fake identification to get a job in Georgia.