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Business leaders, Latino advocates speak out against immigration bills
Senate committee holds hearing in Gainesville for feedback on proposed legislation
An overflow crowd attended the public hearing on immigration put on by the Senate Special Committee on Immigration and Georgia’s Economy at the Georgia Mountains Center Tuesday night. - photo by Tom Reed

A Senate committee on immigration heard hours of impassioned testimony Tuesday about how proposed immigration legislation would adversely affect the business community.

A room mostly filled with opponents of the immigration bills in the Georgia House and Senate spoke to the five senators on the committee about how immigration legislation would worsen the economy and create difficulties for Latinos.

The Georgia General Assembly is looking at legislation similar to the controversial Arizona immigration law.

The bills propose strengthening the enforcement of federal immigration programs; giving incentives to state and local police to participate in federal immigration enforcement programs such as 287(g), which allows local officials to check the immigration status of those arrested for other crimes; and punishing people who encourage illegal immigrants to enter Georgia and then transport or conceal them when they arrive.

The hearing was a regional one that drew people from throughout the metro Atlanta area and North Georgia.

Tom Hensley, president of poultry company Fieldale Farms Corp. that has locations in North Georgia, told the Senate Special Committee on Immigration and Georgia's Economy that 287(g) already had a detrimental effect on the poultry industry in Hall County that would only be worsened by statewide legislation.

Hensley said despite using measures to ensure the company hired documented workers, the anti-immigrant climate in the state has driven the Latino workers he depended on away from his business.

"We were 67 percent Hispanic in 2004. Our turnover was 25 percent. Our workers (compensation) cost was $50,000 a month. Our health care cost for the whole year was $8 million. It was about that time that the federal, state and local governments let it be known that these folks are not welcome," Hensley said.

"Fast forward to 2010, we're about 33 percent Hispanic now. Our turnover is 75 percent. Workers comp costs are $150,000 a month. Our health care last year was $20 million. Those are staggering numbers, but that's the economic reality.

"We need comprehensive immigration reform in this country. It has to be a federal program, not the state ... you can't have 50 different laws in 50 different states. I implore you, don't pass any more laws."

Many people shared their stories of how recent discussions on immigration have created a hostile environment for Latinos.

Laura Murvartian of Sandy Springs said she came to the U.S. illegally with her parents from Mexico when she was age 8. She grew up working in chicken plants before she was able to get a bachelor's degree and become a citizen.

She said immigration rhetoric has made her feel uncomfortable, even though she is a citizen.

"My 9-year old son is asthmatic. When I take him to emergency room at 3 in the morning, I feel judged," she said, referring to the stares from people who is assume she is in the country illegally.

Murvartian said despite owning several businesses in Georgia, she and her family will move away if the proposed legislation becomes law.

"I feel it is a personal attack on people like me," she said. "I feel it is my duty to stand up and speak for those who are currently in an illegal situation today as I was 30 years ago."

Gainesville attorney Arturo Corso said undocumented immigrants are a pillar of the Hall County economy.

"There have been frequent calls to my law office. Once, every two weeks, a well-known, Anglo-American business owner of significant wealth calls me and asks me how they can go about legalizing their employees," Corso said.

"The truth is, they really can't. There is a great myth that there is a legal path to come to the U.S. There is no lawful path to come to the U.S. if you are a Mexican."

Corso told senators there is a 15-year backlog for Mexicans hoping to get enter the U.S. legally.

Others came out to show their support of tougher enforcement of immigration laws.

Lennie Baker, who moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands, spoke in favor of local immigration laws.

"I think it starts on the local level. The feds? We've seen what a mess they've made of everything. So I don't think they're going to do any better," she said. "I have not heard one person mention the taxpayers' cost for all these illegal immigrants. There's only so much money to go around. To hit the taxpayers up for all these illegal expenses is wrong."

The senators on the committee said they were impressed by the turnout of nearly 300 and heard valuable information from those spoke at the hearing.

"I was impressed we had actual members of the business community show up. So often you just get activists," said Sen. Curt Thompson, chairman of the committee.