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DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliot.

We open our program tonight with a focus on illegal immigration and the debate raging across the country on whether and how it should be curbed. This past week, the State House in Georgia passed a measure that would levy a five- percent surcharge on wire transfers home by undocumented immigrants. It's one of many steps taken or under consideration by state lawmakers in places like North Carolina, Virginia and Iowa.

Local officials want to stem the tide of illegal migrants or recoup money spent on public services for them. So the states have decided to act on their own as the U.S. Congress struggles to adopt federal immigration reform. We begin our coverage with a report from Emily Kopp of Georgia Public Broadcasting. She says Georgia has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the nation and the wire transfer measure passed in the state house is just the first of a series of bills targeting illegal immigrants.

EMILY KOPP reporting:

In 2004, the Federal government estimated that nearly a quarter of a million illegal immigrants were living in Georgia. There are probably a lot more by now. Republican Representative Tom Rice says they've surrounded his suburban Atlanta district and his constituents are concerned.

Representative TOM RICE (Republican, Georgia): Because of the crowding in the schools, because of the services provided in the hospital emergency rooms, and because, frankly, in the criminal justice system, we seem to see a lot of people who aren't legal.

KOPP: Rice sponsored a bill to levy a five percent fee on money illegal immigrants wired out of the country. People who could show passports, green cards or other proof that they're here legally or that they pay taxes in Georgia wouldn't have to pay the fee. On the House floor Rice said the proceeds would help pay for emergency health care and other hospital services illegal immigrants use.

Representative RICE: So the problem is real and this remedy offers the opportunity for them to pay back to the system that supports them so well in this state.

KOPP: Rice says about a billion dollars leaves Georgia each year through wire transfers. But there's no way to tell how much of that is from illegal immigrants. Rice admits he doesn't know how much money the fee would raise. During the debate, Austin Scott, a South Georgia Republican, called the bill immoral.

Representative AUSTIN SCOTT (Republican, Georgia): I honestly believe that what we're about to do is tax people who are doing the best that they can to provide for their families.

KOPP: And Scott warned his colleagues to stay out of the issue.

Representative SCOTT: I'm afraid that we're about to move down piecemeal immigration reform when what we really need is meaningful immigration reform at the federal level from our Republican Congress and our Republican Senate.

KOPP: The House passed the bill 106-60. But its future in the Georgia Senate is uncertain. Democratic Senator Sam Zamarripa of Atlanta calls the measure an election year ploy. He says it would be difficult to enforce given the sheer size of the money wiring industry.

Senator SAM ZAMARRIPA (Democrat, Georgia): Some of them are located in drug stores, some in restaurants. Some of them use computers. Some of them use the old wire system. Some of them are stand-alone stores. The people that work in those settings are wage and hour people. These are private businesses. It's going to be a real wake up when CERT inspectors show up to try to enforce this law.

KOPP: Financial institutions and immigrants rights advocates have lined up to fight the measure. Western Union refused to comment on tape. In a written statement, the company says it would be hard for customer service agents to determine on the spot whether someone was legally in the country, while immigrants right groups say the bill could lead to risky behavior. Tisha Tallman is the Southeastern Regional Counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Ms. TISHA TALLMAN (Southeastern Regional Counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund): Anything that would encourage the carrying of money or discourage providing money to families back home would be an additional burden in the undocumented immigrant community and would be a reason for further fear of potential violence.

KOPP: The bill is just a part of Georgia lawmakers' assault on illegal immigration. Senate Republicans are backing more comprehensive legislation that would give police, the State Driver's Services Agency and private employers rules in enforcing immigration law.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Kopp in Atlanta.

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