ATLANTA (AP) — With the arrival of the new year, a key section of Georgia's new law targeting illegal immigration will begin to take effect.
Starting Jan. 1, any employer with 500 or more employees will have to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of all new hires. Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, author of the law, said from the start that his main goal was to deter illegal immigrants from coming to Georgia by making it tougher for them to work in the state.
The E-Verify requirement is being phased in slowly. It will take effect for employers with 100 or more employees on July 1 and for employers with more than 10 employees a year later on July 1, 2013.
Another key provision that takes effect Jan. 1 is one that requires any agency that administers public benefits to require each applicant to provide at least one "secure and verifiable document." A list of acceptable documents was provided by the attorney general's office over the summer. The agency administering public benefits must also complete a signed statement verifying the applicant's legal presence in the country.
The new law also instructs the state agriculture department to submit a report to the governor and the heads of each chamber of the state Legislature by Jan. 1. The department was tasked with examining the effect of immigration on the state's agriculture industry and providing suggestions to reform a federal guest worker program. The department was also supposed to evaluate the feasibility of a state guest worker program.
For many affected by the sections of the law set to take effect Jan.1, some confusion still remains.
"Many Georgia businesses are confused with respect to the provisions of the law that have to do with E-Verify," said Atlanta lawyer Teri A. Simmons, who advises businesses on immigration and employment matters. "Within most businesses, human resources professionals are already dealing with so much that it's hard to also fit in E-Verify training and administration."
Many of the larger companies that fall under the initial E-Verify deadline may weather the change easily because they have big, sophisticated human resources departments, but it may cause more problems as the requirement spreads to smaller companies, said Simmons, who added that she opposes the law because it places an additional burden on businesses.
Atlanta-based Home Depot, which has nearly 20,000 employees in Georgia alone, expects to have no problems implementing the E-Verify requirement, spokesman Stephen Holmes said.
"We use it in other states where it's required, so we can turn it on here when necessary," he said.
The Coca-Cola Co., another big Atlanta-based employer with more than 9,000 employees in Georgia, has used E-Verify for all of its employees since 2010, spokesman Charlie Sutlive said.
Already, any company with a federal contract is required to use E-Verify, and Georgia has required state and local government agencies and their contractors to use the database since 2007. Nationwide, 17 states have or are phasing in E-Verify requirements for some combination of private and public employers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Like for businesses, bigger local governments are likely in a better position to deal with their responsibilities under the new law than smaller ones, mostly because of the size of their staffs, said Todd Edwards of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
"We've gotten more questions on this issue than on anything else in recent years," he said.
The most common questions have to do with the definition of a public benefit and a contract and whether the required documents can be submitted electronically, Edwards said. The organization has held several training sessions around the state to try to educate county governments.
"They all want to comply," Edwards said, "but for some of the smaller ones, especially, it's a matter of having sufficient resources and staff."
When Georgia's governor signed the law in May, Georgia joined Arizona and several other states that have recently enacted tough laws taking aim at illegal immigration. Federal judges have since blocked all or parts of the various laws, and Arizona's is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court next year.
A federal judge in June blocked parts of Georgia's law pending the outcome of a legal challenge filed by immigrant rights and civil liberties groups. One of the blocked sections authorizes police to check the immigration status of suspects who don't have proper identification and to detain illegal immigrants. The other creates a state penalty for people who knowingly and willingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing another crime.
The state has appealed the judge's decision, and a federal appeals court is set to hear arguments from both sides early next year.
Other parts of the law took effect in July, including:
— a new felony offense with hefty penalties for using false information or documentation when applying for a job;
— the creation of an immigration review board to investigate complaints about government officials not complying with state laws related to illegal immigration;
— fines and possible removal from office for any public official who fails to use federal databases to verify the immigration status of new hires or applicants for public benefits.