By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 9, 2006
The Georgia Senate has begun debating a bill that targets the legal status of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Georgia, putting more pressure on businesses not to hire them, on law enforcement to verify their immigration status, and on public agencies not to offer them more than the minimum of services required by federal law.
At the same time, the Catholic bishops of Georgia are opposing the legislation as an impractical and punitive measure that fosters fear and jeopardizes the safety of the entire community. There are an estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia, with more than 250,000 arriving in the last five years.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland issued a joint pastoral letter March 2, supporting instead comprehensive immigration reform at the national level. They joined with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its “Justice for Immigrants, A Journey of Hope” campaign.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta has also launched a local educational and advocacy campaign, calling on Catholics to speak out in support of immigration reform legislation that is consistent with biblical teachings and that is humane, enforceable and targeted.
The Catholic bishops nationally and in Georgia have endorsed U.S. Senate Bill 1033, the bipartisan Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act sponsored by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy, as most closely matching Catholic social justice principles. Among key provisions, it calls for improved enforcement measures to control U.S. borders and protect national security; a new mandatory electronic employee eligibility verification system; a guest worker program with access to adjust status; and a pathway for undocumented workers already in the United States to pay a $2,000 fine and work for six years at which time they can apply to adjust their legal status.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles recently called upon Catholics to pray and fast during Lent in solidarity with the estimated 8 to 11 million undocumented workers and their families throughout the United States.
Georgia Sen. Sam Zamarripa (D-Atlanta), among senators speaking out for the undocumented, said many supporting state legislation talk about undocumented immigrants as if they are inhuman and fail to mention their human rights and their contributions to Georgia’s economy. There are several state bills targeting the undocumented, but the bill that is the most comprehensive and has progressed the furthest is the Security/Immigration Compliance Act (SB 529).
“The reality is we need these workers. They are contributing to our economy,” Zamarripa said. “It helps us, (it) doesn’t take away from us. But it’s fashionable to go out and pick on them without saying one decent thing about these folks, and I think it’s really mean.”
Although not a bill supporter, Zamarripa has worked with the sponsor of SB 529, Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), on amendments he believes make it more humane. He worries the legislation could get tougher when it proceeds to the state House of Representatives. State Senate debate was expected to begin March 8 with a possible vote the same day; the bill can be amended in either house.
Zamarripa said he would speak out in the Senate about the contributions of undocumented immigrants, their future, and the need for national immigration reform. He praised Cardinal Mahony and Archbishop Gregory for bringing a moral dimension to the debate on how to address undocumented workers, who’ve broken civil, not criminal, law.
“I’m going to talk about the positive contributions they make and the need for them in the future and their dignity and human rights and the condemnation of Archbishop Gregory of this bill and of the cardinal in Los Angeles issuing a challenge to talk about this as a moral issue,” said the Hispanic senator. “I’m certain we’re going to get federal (immigration) reform, and all the workers will get their status here, and all these mean provisions to hunt them down will vanish.”
Archbishop Gregory “has a very clear moral vision and view on these issues, and his leadership is the most important thing that has happened on this debate in years,” Zamarripa said.
The senator explained that the state has no authority to grant an undocumented worker any kind of legal status in the United States, such as a visa. Yet through this legislation the state is trying to insert itself into immigration enforcement.
“It’s a federal responsibility, and the federal government has to come up with a policy that we can all live with,” he said. “SB 529 is using a combination of federal and state laws to go after undocumented workers in their place of employment, in services they receive, and in the context of law enforcement. Each and every aspect of their lives is subject to a criminal act that is criminalizing someone’s very existence.”
His office has already started receiving calls from undocumented people fearful of being deported or even of sending their children to school.
As of March 7, SB 529 would require law enforcement in Georgia to verify the lawful presence of every person who is confined on a felony charge, with guidelines and procedures to be established by various state agencies and associations. Other provisions would discourage businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants by prohibiting employers from receiving state income tax benefits if they hire undocumented workers paid more than $600 a year; require that public contractors use only workers here legally; and establish penalties for human smuggling. Under SB 529 proof of legal residence would be required from anyone older than 18 who seeks public benefits, except for emergency medical care; prenatal care; short-term, in-kind, non-cash disaster relief; immunizations and treatment for communicable diseases; help from organizations providing in-kind services for the community meeting various federal requirements; K-12 education; and post-secondary education. An amendment Zamarripa proposed would prevent unqualified, unscrupulous persons from offering immigration services.
The section on public benefits would require the applicant to execute an affidavit affirming his or her status as a U.S. citizen or lawfully present alien. Any undocumented person who misrepresents his or her status will be charged with a felony. Zamarripa believes this could trap people into committing a felony, especially with a lack of understanding of the law and of fluency in English. A felony is a deportable offense.
“We shouldn’t be doing it because it sets up a situation where people could be convicted for a felony unnecessarily,” Zamarripa said. “It creates a criminal framework for routine interaction between a social worker and a person.”
He believes that undocumented workers already avoid doctors as much as possible. “Most are young men and are not the kind to show up at the public health department,” he said. “All this is exaggerated, and the Hispanic community is being blamed for a bankrupt health care system we have that hasn’t taken care of U.S. citizens.”
Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said states are permitted to pass legislation expanding public benefits to the undocumented, but Georgia has not done so. She believes the bill “lays the groundwork for future denial for many types of other connected services that might be addressed in other legislation.”
Among its ramifications, the bill would alter existing policy allowing some access to in-state tuition to undocumented Georgia college students. Many are concerned this would prevent students, who may have been living in the United States since they were infants, from attending college, due to the high cost of out-of-state tuition.
Rogers defended the exclusion on post-secondary education benefits as a way to require the state Board of Regents to make a policy on in-state tuition that complies with federal laws. He said that under federal law, states can’t give post-secondary benefits to someone here illegally unless that option is passed into law.
“Even if you say that you can (give post-secondary benefits) you’re still not allowed to give that person in-state tuition unless you offer it to every person in the United States,” he said, adding that he believes Georgia is in violation of federal law with its current policy.
Rogers asserted that the bill is just establishing procedures to follow federal law, as existing verification systems for public benefits leave a lot of room for ineligible people to receive them.
“Federal law indicates who is eligible. It just verifies the process of applying for benefits,” he said. “We can’t change who’s eligible or not. All we can say is there is a process by which we’re going to verify people.”
“Taxpayers have a right to know … we are verifying the eligibility of persons receiving benefits,” Rogers continued. “There’s a limited amount of money we have to dispense to people, and every time we give a benefit to someone who’s ineligible, by definition that means dollars can’t go to someone who is eligible. We deny people for benefits every single day who are eligible, simply because we don’t have enough funds.”
He noted that the bill doesn’t prevent persons from buying health insurance plans or providers, including those relying on government grants, from providing free or low-cost health care.
“It’s recognizing federal law and making sure everyone is abiding by the law,” Rogers said. “It becomes immoral when we decide for certain people the law doesn’t apply to them, certain employers can escape abiding by the law. … The greatness of America is that (for) everyone, regardless of race, regardless of wealth, regardless of birth, if you are legally in America and an American citizen or a legal immigrant to America you will be treated exactly the same across the board and get the same opportunities.”
But a group of health care providers protested in February on the steps of the Capitol, raising concern that legislation aimed at restricting state services to the undocumented may further strain overcrowded emergency rooms and create a climate of fear that would prevent persons from bringing in their children for preventative care or treatment for contagious diseases.
Sue Colussy, director of Catholic Social Services immigration services and an expert immigration attorney, believes more people may try to adjust their immigration status because they can’t get needed health care. She questioned what would happen to someone ineligible for non-emergency treatment who needs long-term care for a chronic, serious illness.
In January the state narrowed the definition of what constitutes an emergency and what can be covered for the undocumented through Medicaid and in December set more stringent income verification requirements to prove eligibility.
Colussy recently trained hospital social workers who are concerned about denial of Medicaid for non-emergency cases that would become an emergency without treatment.
Colussy said immigration law is so complex it’s not always clear what benefits one is eligible for and this could lead to errors, noting she recently faxed someone 38 pages explaining alien eligibility for public benefits.
“Immigration is clearly a federal mandate. It’s not a state mandate. That’s what the separation of powers is for,” she said.
Tallman believes this and other measures will not significantly decrease illegal immigration but are designed to make the undocumented feel more discomfort, when many are already exploited and discriminated against at work.
“The state needs to channel its frustration to engage Congress to fix the situation at the national level. This is not going to send people home. It’s just going to make it that much more uncomfortable for them to be here and to contribute to Georgia’s economy,” said Tallman, a Catholic.
Tallman cited an assessment by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute that Georgia’s undocumented contribute up to $252 million a year in taxes while last year the federal government paid $67 million and the state paid $44 million in medical services to the undocumented.
The Justice for Immigrants Web site reports that immigrant labor force participation is consistently higher than native born, and nationally the ratio between legal immigrant use of public benefits and the amount of taxes they pay is consistently favorable to the United States. By one estimate, they earn about $240 billion a year, pay about $90 billion a year in taxes, and use about $5 billion a year in public benefits, and 70 percent arrive at prime working age.
In one measure of undocumented workers’ contributions, the Social Security Administration’s file of contributions that cannot be matched to workers’ names and Social Security numbers grew by $20 billion between 1990 and 1998.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there will be a shortage of two million workers in a range of low-skilled jobs by 2010. Moreover, the number of native workers in unskilled worker categories is shrinking, due to lower fertility rates and higher education levels.
Rogers believes it’s a “ridiculous” argument to say that because some pay taxes that makes it acceptable for them to break the law or receive benefits for which they’re not entitled, or to say that because they provide economic benefits businesses are allowed to unlawfully hire them.
He said that the section in SB 529 preventing businesses from getting tax write-offs for wages paid to undocumented workers is one way to “level the playing field” for businesses who only hire legal workers. He said that those who only hire legal residents are put at an economic disadvantage, as they are more accountable to employees for benefits, workers compensation and wages than those who hire the undocumented.
“There’s no question that it puts them at an economic disadvantage,” he said.
Currently employers pick up day laborers and write those wages off as business expenses or contract undocumented workers as subcontractors who don’t provide documents showing lawful presence, he said.
The bill won’t improve detection of fake documents but businesses are encouraged to use the federal Basic Pilot Program, which can detect fraudulent documents and is free, which hundreds of Georgia employers already use, he said.
He hopes that this will encourage workers to return to their country of origin where they can apply to return legally.
But many think that is not likely to happen, as current national policy only allocates 66,000 visas per year for low-skilled, nonagricultural workers to enter the country legally to work, plus about 30,000 agricultural workers, while hundreds of thousands of jobs per year in these sectors are filled with immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and approximately 450,000 undocumented immigrants enter the United States yearly.
Zamarripa is concerned that this will drive the undocumented not to return home but rather to “rely more heavily on fraudulent documents” and the black market, which will drive them further to the margins of society. He noted that now their crime rate is not different from that of U.S. citizens. “They are just little people that want to have a dream and to eat and to feed their families and hope for something better.”
Another concern about SB 529 is that it requires law enforcement to verify the lawful presence of every person who is confined on a felony criminal charge.
Rogers said the section would call for the booking officer to determine the nationality of any person detained for a felony and their lawful presence in the United States through the Law Enforcement Support Center of the Department of Homeland Security, and determine if the person has a standing deportation order against him or is wanted for a felony anywhere else. What now happens is “a lot of times they’ll run the (name) through the system to see if they are wanted on a felony charge anywhere else, but a lot of times they don’t do it with immigrations and customs enforcement to see if that person has a deportation order on him.”
“ It’s a good tool to remove people from neighborhoods who are a potential problem,” he said.
But Zamarripa noted that people with limited English and a lack of understanding of the American legal system will not understand the difference between misdemeanor and felony offenses and be more frightened to report crimes such as domestic violence to the police.
Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities, is leading the local committee that will work to educate the public and urges Catholics to advocate for this vulnerable underclass of people.
“The immigration problem has exploded in the last ten years. Our immigration system cannot possibly handle orderly processing of applicants for work permits or citizenship unless there is comprehensive immigration reform by our country. This problem includes the sheer numbers of over 10 million illegal immigrants already in our country, the impact on children and families who belong to this class of undocumented citizens, and U.S. economic opportunities that keep attracting immigrants to our country for work,” he said.
“The only legislation on either a state or national level that is fair and comprehensive and has the support of the USCCB is the McCain-Kennedy bill. … All other legislation being proposed on the state or national level is either extreme, punitive, or does not adequately address the problem.”
Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Boland’s pastoral letter stated that additional state regulations should come only after federal law has been enacted.
“Rather than approaching the situation in a restrictive and punitive way, our elected officials should support a comprehensive solution to this immigration crisis that looks at all aspects of our immigration system, including our legal immigration system. We need realistic immigration reform. We need a bill that is fair, practical, and enforceable.”