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Clamping down

Georgia's immigration law takes effect in July, but its ripples are already being felt

Seven years ago, Jose Sanchez left his home in Guadalajara, Mexico, to illegally cross the U.S. border. Sanchez (who asked that his real name not be used because of his illegal status) migrated to Georgia to make a better life for his family. He works in the quality-control department of a local company that manufactures kitchen cabinets and door frames. He earns $15 an hour to support his wife and their 3-year-old American-born daughter in a gated apartment community in Gwinnett County.

But Georgia's comprehensive immigration law might change all that when it takes effect July 1.

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act that was passed in 2006 will, among other things, bar illegal immigrants from obtaining social services and prohibit government contractors from hiring undocumented workers. It will also require random audits of every business in the state.

"I understand the law will punish you if you work with fake papers," Sanchez says, through a translator.

That's a problem for Sanchez, who needed to get "nationalized" to find work. He quit his first job at a company that imported and exported meats after his supervisor asked for him to prove his legal status.

After that, Sanchez went to the black market, where he bought a Social Security number and U.S. birth certificate of a real person. Though he's able to work with these documents under an assumed identity, the need to present photo identification has prevented him from obtaining a state driver's license. If he's pulled over, he'll be put in jail and probably deported. "Sometimes [people] will leave the country and let others work with their Social Security number," Sanchez says. "It's far more expensive to get these kinds of documents, but it offers you some comfort in at least knowing they're legit."

As July 1 approaches, many immigrants – both illegal and legal – are scrambling to decide what to do. Some individuals have obtained black-market documents, while others have packed up, ready to move to a different state. It's a substantial change from the vocal, historical immigration protests and boycotts that made national headlines last year.

"The immigrant community is very fearful and anxious," says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "People are selling their homes, liquidating their assets and emptying their bank accounts to ensure that they will be able to move on a moment's notice."

While immigrants such as Sanchez weigh their options, metro Atlanta businesses may also have to scramble to deal with some unexpected consequences of the law. Gonzalez says the Home Builders Association of Georgia expects the time for homes to be built to double and the costs of new homes to increase by 10 to 30 percent, because American workers will demand higher pay and only work 40-hour weeks.

But Sen. Chip Rogers, the law's lead sponsor, says he doesn't think the law will have such an impact on the economy.

"In the long run, any time you can establish a system where every person and every business is held accountable to all the laws, that's good," Rogers says.

He also says there should be "almost no cost whatsoever" to implement the measure because law enforcement agencies already use citizenship-verification systems. He adds that the Georgia State Patrol will be trained and certified in immigration law. But if other states prove any lessons, that may not be the case.

Last year, Colorado passed and implemented a handful of immigration laws that were modeled after Georgia's act. According to the Denver Post, the law, which was touted as a money-saving proposition, has cost the state more than $2 million to enforce. And that's with specific guidelines built into the law for the state to follow.

Gonzalez points out that Georgia's law doesn't build in training requirements for law enforcement.

"The state doesn't want to enforce what it set out to do," he says. "It just wants to pretend like it was doing something about [immigration]."

A spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue didn't return CL's calls regarding how the state will enforce the law.

As for Sanchez, he's going to try to stay even as his friends get ready to leave. His daughter is a U.S. citizen and his wife is in the process of obtaining a green card via political asylum. But he knows that his fate could change.

"I dread the day I get pulled over, not having a [driver's] license," he says. "But what can you do? You have to drive to get to work."