Georgia, Latinos, and the Latino Vote

A Latino child in Georgia

The Latino population is growing in Georgia. (Photo: Philip Wartena/flickr)

Georgia lawmakers were at it again, less than a year after passing their own version of Arizona’s hardcore immigration law.  SB 458 would have rendered foreign passports unacceptable as identification when conducting business with government agencies. Obtaining marriage licenses or signing up for water and sewage service could have become insurmountable challenges.

The Georgia Assembly was expected to vote on SB 458 at the end of the legislative session last Thursday but it did not even make it to the floor.

Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, believes this was because “reason weighed in.” He said that only two percent of GOP primary voters in Georgia said unauthorized immigration was the issue that mattered most in deciding how they voted. He also thinks that the appetite for draconian immigration laws is diminishing.

Gonzalez has been at the forefront of the battle for immigrant rights in Georgia, and he is optimistic. He believes that the devastating effects and backlash against Georgia’s immigration law has turned the tide on anti-immigrant fervor. He says that opposition to SB 458 represents a shift in state politics.

“I think the appetite for this type of anti-immigrant stuff has waned,” he said. He is also confident that a coalition of immigrant advocates in the state will fight SB 458 and similar measures tooth and nail should they resurface.

“We’ve defeated English-only for drivers’ licenses three to four times already,” he said.

SB 458 originally had a provision that denied undocumented immigrant youth access to state colleges and universities. A couple of days before the House was to vote on the measure, the provision was stricken out.

Gonzalez said that prohibiting access to higher education had become “an unpalatable position for many Republican legislators,” who control both Georgia’s General Assembly and Senate. He believes that shifting demographics and the personal experience of key Republicans in the state legislature contributed to the demise of the provision.

Rep. Carl Rogers (R-Gainsville), chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, tabled a similar House measure early in the legislative session. Rogers’ district has a large Latino population.

“Gainesville would not be around had it not been for the Latino community,” Gonzalez said. He suspects that Rogers knew of many young students who would have been adversely affected by the bill. “You can’t be from Gainesville and claim ignorance about people who are undocumented.”

One Republican State Senator, Sen. Tommie Williams, even proposed an amendment that would have created Georgia’s version of the DREAM Act. (He later withdrew the amendment before it was formally entered into record.) Gonzalez said that it is likely that Williams’ daughter would have friends who are without papers.

“The senator saw the real implication of denying access to those kids that his daughter plays with right now so that is what I think moved the senator,” was Gonzalez’s analysis.

Gonzalez says a broad coalition has coalesced against anti-immigrant initiatives – Latino advocates, educators, African American leaders, faith-based groups, the Asian community, the LGBT community, and others, and credits them for lobbying efforts against SB 458.

“I think there’s been greater solidarity built across different groups,” he said.

Gonzalez acknowledges there remains much more work to be done, especially during the upcoming elections. He stresses that Latinos and other immigrant communities need to vote into office those who have their best interest in mind.

When Latinos and other immigrant communities in Georgia weigh their options in November, I believe they will go to the polls remembering the broken promises, the marginalization, the threats, and which, if any, officials have supported their rights.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, April 2, 2012.

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