Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

States such as Georgia are cracking down on illegal labor as reform stalls on the Hill

Sitting on the back porch of his tidy home in a leafy neighborhood northwest of Atlanta, D.A. (Donald Arthur) King could be just another middle-class American troubled by the nation's immigration laws. The retired insurance salesman complains about the all-night parties and cluttered front yard of the Mexican family that until recently lived -- illegally, he believes -- across the street. King rails against U.S. immigration and law-enforcement agencies that ignored more than a dozen requests he made to investigate. And he reserves special anger for "employers and bankers" who, he says, help illegal immigrants by giving them jobs and mortgages. "They have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being punished by the government," complains King.

King is no silent bystander, either. The 6-ft., 2-in. former U.S. Marine Corps corporal is a leading proponent of one of the toughest immigration laws in the country. The Georgia Security & Immigration Compliance Act, which Governor Sonny Perdue signed into law on Apr. 17, requires state agencies to verify the legal status of all applicants for taxpayer-provided benefits. It also prohibits state contractors from hiring illegals and eliminates most state income-tax deductions for companies that do. Most of the provisions won't take effect until July, 2007. Still, "the goal is clear: It's to make Georgia less attractive to illegal immigration," says King, who led a "No Amnesty" rally on Apr. 17 of about 150 people at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta.

With thousands of demonstrators thronging streets in recent weeks, the pro-immigrant lobby may appear to have momentum. But a backlash is coming. From Georgia to California, groups led by citizens such as King say the marches have galvanized them to act. "I don't think anyone was prepared for the support that would come in once people saw illegals marching down Main Street," says William Gheen, president of anti-illegal immigration lobbying group Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC), who says he has received hundreds of calls and e-mails since the protests began in late March.

As the tit-for-tat protests mount, it's likely to become harder for a divided Congress to reach a compromise. Both parties are under fierce pressure to clamp down on illegal immigration but also to allow some of the 12 million people already in the U.S. illegally to remain. Given the difficulty of squaring that circle, a stalemate is a distinct possibility, with no major legislation coming out of Washington before the November elections.

This could be good news for business if it averted a crackdown on hiring illegals. On the other hand, a congressional logjam could cause real pain if more states try to fill the breach. After all, getting tough on employers may be the easiest way out for politicians queasy about appearing to be soft on border enforcement. The last major immigration overhaul, in 1986, required employers to conduct "reasonable" checks of residency documents for new workers. But the law has been enforced only sporadically. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed a bill on Apr. 18 that would have made being an illegal in the state a criminal offense. But some 75 bills in 30 states seek Georgia-like restrictions on employers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Local leaders are feeling the pressure to do something," says Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Some business groups are already resigned to heightened scrutiny. "There is going to be some sort of mandated check of Social Security numbers," says John F. Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business lobby group. An elaborate new monitoring system could cause huge problems for companies.

TRACKING CEOS

A crackdown on employers is a major goal of King and the other anti-immigrant activists. ALIPAC, which leads a coalition of 54 restrictionist groups such as the border-patrolling Minuteman Project, says it has plans for a boycott of companies that it believes support liberal immigration laws. Among them: Tyson Foods (TYS ), Wal-Mart Stores (BAC ), and Bank of America (BAC ). ALIPAC researchers are tracking those corporations' political contributions and whether they have supported or opposed get-tough laws at the state level. "We are keeping track of which CEOs and companies are helping illegals," says Gheen.

While anti groups can't hope to muster the people power of recent pro-immigrant rallies, they may have the majority of public opinion behind them. A recent poll by Pew Research Center found that 53% of Americans think illegal immigrants should be required to go home.

Organizers plan to exploit those feelings. At the Apr. 17 rally in Atlanta, a crowd waved banners that read "Kick Me, I'm a Citizen," and "Hola Georgiafornia, Adios Borders." King, 54, introduced a doctor, a legal Hispanic, and a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, Catherine Davis. She called on officials to bring a bus to the next pro-immigrant rally to take illegals "to the border." When King's turn came, he told the crowd: "We are here because our federal government refuses to enforce our immigration or employment laws." He says he has talked with fellow activists in 19 other states about exporting the Georgia strategy.

By Coleman Cowan and Brian Grow

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