ATLANTA — Immigration was a dominant topic during the last legislative session in Georgia and while it's likely to surface again when lawmakers return to the Capitol next month, it probably won't take as large a share of the spotlight.
Georgia lawmakers, like their counterparts in several other states, passed a tough law targeting illegal immigration earlier this year. Some south Georgia Republicans who voted for the bill said they've heard concerns from those whose work in agriculture and would like to see amendments made to help farmers. Secretary of State Brian Kemp said he'd like to see some changes to a section that establishes requirements for the issuing and renewal of professional or business licenses.
But legislative leaders and the law's sponsor say significant changes to the law's substance are unlikely.
"This law has only been in effect six months, some parts haven't even gone into effect and it's under a court challenge," Republican House Speaker David Ralston told The Associated Press. "We need to give it some time before we start tinkering with it."
Ralston said he expects discussion and consideration of some immigration-related bills during the upcoming session, including one that would bar illegal immigrants from all state colleges and universities and another that would require primary and secondary schools and medical facilities to record the immigration status of students and patients, respectively.
Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams said he wasn't aware of any concrete plans to propose changes, and Rep. Matt Ramsey, the Peachtree City Republican who wrote the law, said he doesn't foresee any tweaks beyond "clarifying and housekeeping."
In neighboring Alabama, which passed an even tougher law cracking down on illegal immigration this year, some prominent Republicans — including lawmakers and the state attorney general — are calling for big changes to that law. That's not the case in Georgia.
The Associated Press reached out to a number of south Georgia lawmakers who supported the law. Even those who had concerns said they stood by their votes. And Attorney General Sam Olens has pledged to vigorously defend it against a pending legal challenge filed by civil liberties and immigrant rights groups.
Sen. John Bulloch, a Republican from Ochlocknee in the southwestern corner of the state and chair of the agriculture committee, said the law has hurt vegetable farmers in his district because migrant workers were too scared to come to Georgia this year. Similar complaints from the agriculture industry have been well documented in the media since the law passed.
Bulloch expressed concern about the bill during debate in the Senate but eventually voted for it after working with the sponsor to make some changes. Though he readily admits that he does not like the legislation, Bulloch said he's not second-guessing his vote but would welcome an opportunity to tweak the law.
"You can't try to live any yesterdays," he said. "If I have a chance to make some changes to it sometime in the future, I'll certainly vote to make some changes to try to lessen the blow or take some things out of it."
Notably, he said he'd like to remove a requirement for businesses to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of new hires that is set to be phased in starting Jan. 1. That requirement creates too much red tape, especially for small businesses, he said.
That change seems unlikely. Ramsey has said from the start that the E-Verify section is the most important aspect because it will make it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs here, which is one of the main reasons they come. He said this week that lawmakers would consider "any common sense tweaks" to the law.
"What we will not consider is any changes that will diminish the purpose of the legislation which is to address the social and economic consequences of illegal immigration," Ramsey said.
Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, who sponsored a bill with some similarities to Ramsey's, was one of four lawmakers who traveled to south Georgia with Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black over the summer to talk to farmers about the effects of immigration on their business. They're concerned about a shortage of labor, but Murphy said it's unclear whether that's caused by the law and echoed Ralston's sentiment that it's too early to tell.
"The law just became effective," he said. "We don't have anything to measure right now because it hasn't been in place that long."
Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, said he's heard complaints from some farmers in his district and believes the law, which he said was intended to protect Georgians and ensure a legal workforce, has had some unintended consequences. But legislation is a work in progress and sometimes you have to wait until a law is enacted to see what its flaws are, he said.
"Had we not voted on it, we wouldn't have gotten as much public comment," he said. "Yes, it's not perfect, but at least we know where we can fix it now."
Williams, whose district includes many Vidalia onion producers, also worked to get changes in the law before eventually voting for it. While this bill may have discouraged some migrant workers from coming to Georgia, the real problem is the lack of a workable federal guest worker program, he said.
Farmers and other agricultural employers can bring in an unlimited number of temporary foreign workers under a federal guest worker program, but many complain the process is too rigid and cumbersome. Two Georgia congressmen have proposed federal legislation meant to reform the program, which is known as H-2A, to make it easier for farmers to use.
Georgia's new law tasked the agriculture commissioner with studying the effect of immigration on the state's agriculture industry. In a report due to the governor and the legislative leadership by Jan.1, the agriculture commissioner is to make suggestions for improving the federal agricultural guest worker program and to study the possibility of a state guest worker program.
Utah, which passed an immigration enforcement law similar to Georgia's earlier this year, also passed a law that would establish a state guest worker program. Federal officials have said such a program would be unconstitutional because issuing visas and enforcing immigration laws fall under federal jurisdiction. But several Georgia lawmakers said they'd still like to see their state follow Utah's lead.
Williams said he'd like the state to get permission from the federal government before embarking on a state guest worker program to avoid spending money developing something that could ultimately be halted, and Ralston said he'd rather give the current law a chance to work before embarking on another big initiative.
The new law also requires any agency that administers public benefits to require that applicants for those benefits provide a "secure and verifiable" document proving their legal presence in the country. Professional licenses fall into that category, and Kemp says the new requirement causes extra work for his staff that could delay the issuing or renewal of licenses by 90 to 120 days.
Kemp said this week he'd like to see the law amended to require applicants to provide the documents only for new licenses, not for renewals. He'd also like to see a change so that the law would require his staff to audit the documents of only a certain percentage of applicants rather than checking every applicant's documents.