ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia state lawmaker on Thursday filed legislation that targets illegal immigrants in the work force and is drawing criticism from several fronts, including the state's No. 1 industry, agriculture.
Like a bill filed last week in the Georgia House of Representatives, the proposal from state Sen. Jack Murphy and other Republican senators would require all private employers to use a federal database to check that new hires are in the country illegally. But, unlike the House bill, it includes exemptions for employers who use certain work visa programs.
"What we want to do is have the employers ... check on their employees to make sure that they're in this country legally, working legally under the proper visas," Murphy told reporters.
The exemption would include the H2-A visa program, which allows farmers to bring in workers from other countries for seasonal work. The program is very unpopular with the state's farmers, who say it is cumbersome and expensive.
Growers in Georgia employ illegal immigrants and other laborers to plant and harvest labor-intensive crops, particularly fruits and vegetables easily bruised by machines.
Michael Hively, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Business Council of Georgia and CFO of Bland Farms, said using the government's visa program for short-term agriculture workers is expensive. His farm uses that program to get up to 350 workers.
Farmers must provide housing for temporary workers, cover their transportation costs and pay them a better wage than illegal immigrants.
"The smaller growers out there ... do not have the housing and the infrastructure set up to do" it, Hively said. "We need immigration reform, but we need it at the national level."
The Georgia Farm Bureau, a lobbying group, said it was still studying the proposal and could not immediately comment. But the organization voted at its annual convention in December to oppose any state immigration measure that "discriminates against the farm worker" and puts farmers at a competitive disadvantage.
In a statement a week before the release of his bill, Murphy said he wanted to create an exclusion for the agriculture industry, but his bill would also apply to other special visa programs, including the H-1B visa, which allows companies to bring in highly specialized workers, and the H-2B visa, which allows employers to bring in foreign workers for short-term, nonagricultural work.
The bill drew criticism from D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which argues for strong immigration enforcement measures.