ATLANTA - The debate over treatment of illegal immigrants affects more than undocumented workers themselves, according to witnesses testifying Tuesday for and against a sweeping bill pending before the Senate.
Georgians eligible for government services but not receiving them have a stake in the debate, said the bill's author, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock. The 12,000 Georgians on waiting lists for services might get treatment if Senate Bill 529 passes and weeds out the illegal immigrants from the beneficiaries.
On the other hand, several doctors testified that denying illegal immigrants medical care could lead to the spread of communicable diseases. Should the bird flu spread to Georgia's poultry industry, which is reportedly staffed largely with immigrants, said Dr. Jason Prystowsky of Emory Medical School, then the workers will resist seeking treatment until they are contagious.
"I don't think health care should be used as a tool to address the immigration issue," he said.
Dr. George Rust of the Morehouse School of Medicine expanded Dr. Prystowsky's point.
"That cough goes untreated a little bit longer, and it's really tuberculosis. And that affects all of us," Dr. Rust said.
Mr. Rogers explained his bill line by line Tuesday before the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee led by Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens. Since he announced his intention to address illegal immigration last year, Mr. Rogers has met with dozens of groups for and against the bill, making minor alterations to try to address each one's concerns, including permitting treatment for contagious diseases.
The details of the bill continue to change as the committee considers it in time for a vote in the Senate this week or next. In its current version, it requires state and local agencies in addition to police forces to tap federal databases to verify the nationality of adults seeking benefits. It also would force employers to use similar tools to check the citizenship of workers, including independent contractors.
Pregnant women and children would still get medical care, and education through high school would still be available without citizen verification. And police would check the status of suspects only when they're arrested for other serious crimes to prevent the possibility of racial profiling.
Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, has led the opposition to SB 529 while persuading Mr. Rogers to accept multiple changes. One change Mr. Rogers has refused to budge on is exempting college students from the verification requirement.
Mr. Zamarripa urged the committee to make the change anyway.
"We cannot punish young men and women for the sins of their parents," he said. "... We can't deny their future simply because their parents brought them here."
Tuesday was the first legislative hearing on the bill.
Surveys show the public overwhelmingly supports tougher controls on illegal immigrants, estimated to be more than 200,000 in Georgia alone. Democrats have generally opposed state legislation to address the issue, arguing it should be a federal matter.
Tisha Tallman, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund's Georgia office, said a court battle over SB 529 would eventually leave the legislation worthless.
"It is our opinion that it is unconstitutional, unrealistic and inhumane," she said. "And there is no compromise on this bill."
Mr. Rogers noted that Congress set up several mechanisms for employers and state and local agencies to check nationalities of people, proving, he said, that it is proper for the General Assembly to write laws such as his.
The committee stopped for the night before everyone had testified. It will consider the bill again, along with multiple amendments, before it heads to the full Senate and then on to the House.
Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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