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Georgia Senate takes on immigration in 2 bills

/ Source: The Associated Press

Georgia lawmakers waded back into the debate over immigration on Thursday, passing one measure that would outlaw sanctuary cities and another that would boost penalties for driving without a valid drivers license.

Sanctuary cities — where officials are prohibited from reporting illegal immigrants — became a flashpoint in the Republican presidential primary. Rudolph Giuliani was accused of presiding over a safe haven for illegal immigrants as mayor of New York City.

The Georgia bill would prohibit sanctuary cities here, although the bill's sponsor conceded that no such cities formally exist in the state.

State Sen. Chip Pearson argued on Thursday that police in some jurisdictions were being told not to ask about immigration status of those they apprehend, which creates de facto sanctuary communities. The sweeping immigration bill that passed in Georgia in 2006 already requires police to check the immigration status of people they arrest. But Pearson said his bill would give that law additional teeth.

Across the nation, 60 sanctuary cities are recognized by rule or regulation, Pearson said.

The measure passed in the state Senate 45-8 on Thursday.

The driver's license bill had been vetoed last year by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who cited concerns that it could ensnare new transplants to the state who hadn't yet obtained a driver's license.

The sponsor, state Sen. John Wiles, said he had modified the bill so that a first-time offender could obtain a valid Georgia license and escape punishment.

Measure boosts penalties
Under Wiles' bill, a driver who is stopped for a fourth time in five years without a valid license would be prosecuted as a felon.

Wiles, a Marietta Republican, said the bill was about keeping the roads free of unlicensed drivers and wasn't targeting illegal immigrants.

But opponents of illegal immigration praised the measure for doing just that.

The Dustin Inman Society sent out an e-mail release to supporters saying it was one of "several pieces of legislation aimed at illegal immigration in Georgia."

The bill passed 38-13. Two Democrats spoke against it saying it could encourage racial profiling.

"This bill will create some incidents that we don't want happening to anyone," state Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said.

It's not Georgia's first foray into the politically charged debate over illegal immigration.

Georgia's ruling Republicans made national headlines when they passed a law in 2006 that critics and supporters at the time labeled the toughest state in the nation. It requires verification that adults seeking many state-administered benefits are in the country legally. It sanctions employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and requires companies with state contracts to check the immigration status of employees.