ATLANTA - This afternoon, Jessica Kelley plans to be one of the millions of people expected to take to the streets nationwide calling attention to immigration issues.
Ms. Kelley, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Georgia, said she is helping organize an Athens march to add to the voices trying to keep the issue on Congress' front burner.
"I feel for the millions of people who come here," said Ms. Kelley, who is not Latino but whose husband of two years is Mexican and is still having difficulties establishing his American citizenship.
"They're living in the shadows," the Augusta native said. "It's not democratic to have a large percentage of your population without rights."
Today, as supporters across the country rally, Georgia is being held up as a test case in the illegal immigration debate.
With Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature, Georgia became the first state in the country to adopt its illegal immigration law in the absence of any reform legislation from Congress this year.
The sponsor of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, said he has been contacted by other states' officials interested in adopting parts of the law. Mexican President Vicente Fox blasted it after Mr. Perdue signed it April 17, calling it discriminatory.
Among the new law's provisions:
- Immigrants applying for many taxpayer-funded services must verify they are in Georgia legally.
- Employers will be allowed to deduct payroll taxes only for legal workers.
- Law enforcement officers will be able to enforce federal immigration laws if they are trained through an agreement between state and federal officials.
- Local jailers will be expected to check the nationality of any person arrested on a felony charge or for driving under the influence.
Sheriffs' officials said that as long as they receive the necessary resources to make those checks, the provision should not be that burdensome.
"All that remains to be seen," said Terry Norris, the executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association. "We're doing all the checks we can before we release them anyway to see if they're wanted on other charges."
Also under the new law, companies will not be able to do work for the state or local governments unless the legal status of their workers is verified.
Like the jail checks, verification is a federal program, which makes some businesses wary about how smoothly the process will go once it begins.
"It's something folks are going to have to get used to," said Mark Woodall, the director of governmental affairs for Georgia's chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America Inc. "If it becomes a national requirement for everybody, not just contractors, the question will be can it (the program) handle every single employer in the United States?"
Most of the law's provisions will take effect next year, with others being phased in by 2008.
A national law has stalled over disagreements on whether to allow a guest-worker program, or grant amnesty to some illegal immigrants.
When it comes to labor, Georgia lawmakers decided to focus on employers' tax breaks. Starting in 2008, businesses must show that new workers making more than $600 a year are legal or else forfeit state payroll tax deductions.
Teodoro Maus, a former Mexican consul general in Atlanta, said he will be interested to see whether penalties are enforced for the state's business community, particularly the manufacturing and building industries.
"They are the economic powerbrokers," said Mr. Maus, who has been helping organize rallies with legal and illegal Hispanics. "If they're going to punish the employers, then the employers are going to seriously push for legislation on immigration that will allow for guest workers."
The immigration issue is expected to play a sizable role in this year's politics on the state and national levels.
Latino groups warned that passage of the Georgia law would turn conservative Latino voters away from the Republican Party.
Greg Howard, the chairman of the Republican Party in Gwinnett County, where the Hispanic population has boomed, said he doesn't think there will be political fallout because of the law.
"I have a lot of Cubans and (members) from other parts of the Hispanic culture who are Republican who are offended because they worked to come to this country," he said. "This is not an ethnic issue ... this is about following the rule of law."
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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