Immigration law gets cheers from its critics

ATLANTA - While immigrant rights groups loudly protested a broad new Georgia law that denies many state benefits to those here illegally, there is one provision buried within the legislation that they had quietly supported.

Many of the bill's most vocal critics gathered Thursday at the Latin American Association's Atlanta office to celebrate a provision in the bill that cracks down on human trafficking.

"Many of us had problems with the bill; it's terrible in many respects," said Stephanie Davis, the policy adviser for Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. "But we fought hard for this portion of it."

Even critics cheered the portion that ramps up penalties for those found guilty of trafficking people. It's partly because many victims are immigrants, said Alia El-Sawi, who leads the Georgia Rescue and Restore Coalition, a group that tries to help victims.

The law, which took effect in July, makes human trafficking a felony and sets a minimum prison sentence at 10 years. It also gives authorities more leeway to prosecute pimps and johns, lowering the standard they must meet to prove suspects are guilty.

"It takes the burden off the victim," Atlanta Police Sgt. Ernest Britton, who heads the city's child exploitation task force.

"You don't necessarily need the testimony of the victim to make the case. I don't have to have a child tell me very intimate, very personal details," he said. "With the new law, we can put together a solid case without having to put the victim through this traumatic experience."

Immigrant advocacy groups blasted Senate Bill 529 last year, saying the provisions unfairly targeted immigrants - illegal or not.

One section that has drawn criticism requires Georgia residents to prove their U.S. citizenship or legal status to get most public benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid, or assistance for paying heating or cooling costs. Another requires that all public employers and contractors with more than 500 employees ensure that all new hires are eligible to work.

Ann Harris, a senior district attorney in suburban Atlanta's Cobb County, said she helped craft the bill because there was no clear state charge that targeted child traffickers. She said she mentioned the problem to Republican state Sen. Chip Rogers in 2005, and was surprised to see an anti-trafficking statute in his immigration bill months later.