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Georgia lawmakers readying raft of tough bills on immigrants, refugees

Emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential win, Republican state lawmakers in Georgia are preparing to introduce a raft of measures targeting refugees and immigrants in the legislative session that starts Monday.

The Republican president-elect pulled off a major upset after vowing to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants and bar Muslims – including Syrian refugees — from entering the U.S.

At least four bills are in the works in Georgia so far, including one that would block the state from accepting federal refugee resettlement funding. Another would start a new fee for out-of-state wire transfers many immigrants and refugees use to send money to their families abroad. Other measures would cut state funding to private universities that don’t comply with immigration laws and ban immigrants without legal status from paying in-state tuition.

Battling over immigration is a perennial exercise in the Republican-controlled Legislature in Georgia, a deep red state that is growing more diverse with immigrants and refugees from around the globe. But Republican state Sen. Joshua McKoon of Columbus, who is planning to sponsor several of the new bills, said Trump’s victory makes this year different.

“If you have got the leader of the Republican Party – who is the president of the United States – articulating similar positions, the attitude of most Republicans is going to be to follow the leadership,” he said. “So I think all of that points toward a brighter future for these proposals.”

Advocates for immigrants and refugees – who like McKoon are veterans of the state’s long running battles over immigration – are girding themselves for a fight. They plan to highlight how immigrants and refugees work in some of the state’s largest and most successful industries – including farming – and create businesses and pay taxes here.

For example, State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, pointed to how the state’s $74.3 billion agricultural industry — Georgia’s largest industry — suffered major crop losses because of labor shortages following the passage of the state’s tough anti-illegal immigration law in 2011. In all, the industry sustained $74.9 million in financial losses that year, according to one report. Orrock said she would fight McKoon’s legislation “to the bitter end.”

“The business community in Georgia has been sending a very clear message that divisive, wedge-issue legislation directed at the immigrant population is not good for business and does not portray Georgia as a welcoming state,” she said.

Orrock added she is hoping to revive her efforts to grant in-state tuition to immigrants who have received a special reprieve from deportation through the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Supporters say they should be allowed to pay in-state rates – which are three times lower than the out-of-state rates – because that could help them boost their education and contribute more to Georgia’s economy.

A Fulton County Superior Court judge recently ruled DACA recipients should be eligible the pay the lower rate. But the Board of Regents announced Tuesday its tuition policy will remain in place while it appeals. Further, McKoon is planning to introduce legislation that would say only people with legal status may pay in-state tuition in Georgia.

“At a certain point,” he said after learning of the Fulton judge’s ruling Tuesday, “most people would say you have to draw a line in terms of public benefits.”

Private universities in Georgia will also be in state lawmakers’ crosshairs this year. State Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs is planning to introduce a bill that would strip state funding from those that don’t comply with state and federal laws, including statutes focused on immigration. Tens of millions of dollars in grants, tuition assistance programs and other funding are at stake.

Ehrhart, the Republican chairman of the House’s higher education financing panel, said he was inspired to introduce his bill after Emory University announced last year it was considering a request to become a “sanctuary campus” for unauthorized immigrants, though Emory has also said it would follow state and federal laws. Students and faculty from more than 100 universities have called on their schools to declare themselves sanctuaries after Trump’s election.

Georgia also has a complicated history with refugees. The state welcomes thousands each year, partly because of its abundance of jobs, affordable housing and access to mass transit. In recent years, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration has sought to stem their flow to the state, citing state and local taxpayer costs. The focus on refugees - particularly those from Syria — intensified after terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. and Orlando, Fla. — although none of the shooters were themselves refugees.

Now McKoon is working on legislation that would block the state from receiving federal refugee resettlement funding until the process is made more secure.

McKoon said the government should improve how it monitors refugees after they have been resettled in the U.S., especially when they travel overseas and then return here. Refugees, according to the federal government, are screened more carefully than any other type of traveler to the U.S. And those screenings involve multiple federal agencies, background checks, fingerprinting and interviews. It can take as long as two years before refugees are finally brought here.

In the fiscal year ending in September, Georgia received $10 million in federal funding to help refugees with things like cash and medical assistance and social services, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During that same timeframe, 3,017 refugees were resettled in the state, mostly from Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Syria.

McKoon’s idea would be counterproductive, said refugee advocates.

“It wouldn’t be good for the state of Georgia. It certainly wouldn’t be good for refugees who are already there,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, a refugee resettlement group that has an affiliate in Atlanta. “It wouldn’t be good for local service providers.”

Refugees and immigrants could also be impacted by a bill sponsored by state Rep. Jeff Jones, a Republican from Brunswick. Jones is proposing putting a new levy on out-of-state wire transfers. It would institute a $10 fee on transfers of $500 or less, and a 2 percent fee on those that exceed $500. Those who pay the fee could seek reimbursement each year when they file their state income tax.

“We’re not targeting the Hispanic community at all,” Jones previously told The AJC, adding this his effort started “pre-Trump.” “We’re targeting those who are trying to hide the cash transactions.”

Such legislation could have a “very negative humanitarian impact,” said Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways, an Atlanta area refugee resettlement agency.

“It would impact people who are trying to survive in some of these very harsh refugee environments,” she said. “Remittances are a way to supplement and make sure people can eat and so kids can go to school and they can have some type of life.”

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