Georgia, Latinos, and the Latino Vote

Posted on Huffington Post, April 3, 2012.  A shorter version was posted on Feet in 2 Worlds.

Georgia lawmakers are at it again, less than a year after passing their own version of Arizona’s hardcore immigration law. They tried to pass a statute that would have made life all the more difficult for many immigrants. 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 for instance could have become insurmountable challenges.

Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, has been at the forefront of the battle for immigrants’ rightful place in Georgia. He discussed the state’s attrition-through-enforcement initiatives.

Proponents of immigration measures have argued that unauthorized immigrants have strained state resources and are criminals who ought to be held to account. Gonzalez thinks that race is an impetus.

“The Deep South has not dealt with the issue of race in a good way and this is a way that issue could come to the forefront without being racial,” he argued. “I think it provides a venue for people with some of the old prejudices to use it as a vehicle for furthering prejudice.”

Gonzalez is hoping though that the devastating effects and backlash against Georgia’s immigration law has turned the tide on anti-immigrant fervor. He witnessed a slight shift with SB 458.

“I think the appetite for this type of anti-immigrant stuff has waned,” he said

The bill originally had a provision which would have denied undocumented youth access to state colleges and universities. A couple of days before the House were to vote on the measure however,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. “If they wanted something to pass they could make it pass early on, even as a standalone bill.”

He believes that the personal experience and connection of key Republicans contributed to the demise of the measure.

Rep. Carl Rogers, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, tabled a similar House measure early in the legislative session. Rogers is from Gainesville which 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.”

Sen. Tommie Williams also briefly proposed and withdrew an amendment that would have created Georgia’s version of the DREAM Act. 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,” Gonzalez said, “it showed some sentiment and concern in that regard.”

Gonzalez acknowledges the work of the broad coalition which has coalesced against anti-immigrant initiatives – Latino advocates, educators, African American leaders, faith-based groups, the Asian community, the LGBT community, and others.

“Injustice whether a person’s gay, whether a person’s an immigrant, whether a person’s African American, I think there’s been greater solidarity built across different groups,” he said.

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

“Clearly we know President Obama has his failures as a president with regards to immigration reform and being known as the deportation president,” he said. “Clearly we know the views of the leading presidential nominees in the Republican side. So I think Latinos are going to be having to make some very hard choices.”

Gonzalez believes at the end of the day, it will be about how the Latino community has been treated.

“When kids are being called beaners in school, when kids are being bullied because they have Spanish accents, it touches the Latino community in very deep personal ways,” he said, “immigration is an issue of respect and that’s how Latinos in Georgia will vote.”

SB 458 did not pass Georgia’s current legislative session which ended last Thursday, but it could be resuscitated later.

Gonzalez is unfazed. “We’ve defeated English-only for drivers’ licenses three to four times already.” He also thinks reason prevailed.

“Only 2 percent of GOP voters thought immigration was a major issue during the most recent GOP presidential primary. It was not something they needed to do.”

In the meantime, Latinos and other immigrant communities nationwide weigh their options for November. I believe they will go to the polls remembering how promises have been broken and threats made, how they have been marginalized, and how they have been used as pawns.

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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.

Can State Immigration Laws Be Rolled Back?

Opponents of Alabama law HB 56

Opponents of Alabama law HB 56.

Alabama passed one of the most severe and stringent immigration laws in the nation last June. It requires public schools to check students’ immigration status, mandates that immigrants carry papers at all times, criminalizes granting rides or renting to undocumented immigrants, prohibits courts from enforcing contracts with those immigrants, and makes it a felony for undocumented immigrants to transact business with the government. HB 56 also instructs law enforcement officials to demand papers from anyone they stop and suspect to be in the country illegally.

The bill has spurred lawsuits from religious leaders, the Obama administration, and civil rights organizations. The latest courtroom development Friday had the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issuing an injunctionwhich temporarily blocks parts of HB 56.

So public school teachers and administrators do not have to check their wards’ immigration status and immigrants will not be charged for walking without sufficient identification—for now. Police officers can still ask for documentation, courts are still barred from enforcing contracts made with unauthorized immigrants, and these immigrants can be charged with a felony for doing business with the state.

Michael Innis-Jiménez, a University of Alabama professor and expert on Latino and Labor issues, believes that the remaining provisions are problematic. He said people “can get profiled and pulled over for almost anything.”

He is troubled most by the contracts provision. “Any contract between an undocumented immigrant and anyone else is automatically void and unenforceable. If you sign a rental agreement it is void. If you sign a loan agreement, a mortgage, a title loan, or an employee contract, they are all void and unenforceable,” he said.

Since the law bars any public office from conducting business with undocumented immigrants, it will be difficult for them to get basic services. “This means immigrants can’t get tags for their cars. Some local governments are also interpreting this as a prohibition to hook up water, sewer, or electricity service for immigrants,” said  Innis-Jiménez.

What can be done to counter Alabama’s immigration law other than going to court?

Some immigrant advocates have called for boycotts. A consortium of Spanish-language radio stations instigated a one-day protest last Wednesday to prove that Latinos are crucial to Alabama’s economy.  A Facebook pagecalled on Latinos to unite and “bring Alabama economy down (sic).” Reports indicate the one-day protest led some poultry plants and businesses to close but only had minimal economic impact.

Even if opponents of HB 56 are able to muster a protracted boycott of the state, it is highly unlikely that the law will be knocked down completely. Despite concerted action against Arizona’s controversial immigration law which cost the state its reputation and hundreds of millions in lost revenue, the law still stands, albeit with a partial injunction, as it winds its way to the Supreme Court.

Its also unclear if boycotts have staying power. The National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group, called off the nationwide protest last month and Arizona was recently chosen by NFL owners to host Super Bowl XLIX.

Innis-Jiménez thinks Alabama’s harsh law will be seriously challenged only when non-immigrant Alabamans feel burdened by HB 56. They are the ones, not the small number of Latinos in Alabama, who can pressure elected officials to change course and possibly even repeal the law.

He gave the example of Alabama’s business and agricultural communities, which for the most part remained silent while the legislators were crafting the legislation. These interests are only now becoming vocal opponents, as they see their bottom lines getting slashed by the law which has scared Latino laborers—authorized and unauthorized—out of the state.

Ordinary citizens are also starting to be inconvenienced. In the most populous county in the state, residents are suffering longer than usual queues at courthouses due to HB 56 and budget cuts. Budget shortfalls have resulted in the closing of courthouses, just at a time when many more residents must flock to them, required to verify residency to buy or renew their driver’s licenses or car tags.

Alabama’s experience is not unique. Other states, like Arizona and Georgia, that passed harsh immigration laws inadvertently inflicted externalities upon their non-immigrant residents.

Innis-Jiménez predicts that eventually, non-immigrants in Alabama will witness the negative fallout of this law. A decrease in the number of public school students for instance, will lead to decreased federal funding. Multinational corporations that value diversity and employ immigrants will think twice before setting shop in states like Alabama.

Change will occur in Alabama, “not out of concern for human rights, but out of inconvenience,”  said Innis-Jiménez.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, October 20, 2011 and WNYC’s It’s A Free Country, “New Allies in Battle Against Controversial Alabama Law.”

Reasonable State Responses to Immigration

dream act activist

While federal legislation stalls, some states are passing their own DREAM Acts. (Photo: dreamactivist/flickr)

Most of us have been transfixed by Alabama’s immigration law which surpasses all other state laws in its harshness and stringency.

The Department of Justice asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday to stop enforcement of Alabama’s HB 56, concerned that it could lead to racial discrimination. Advocacy groups also filed a separate appeal, citing the law’s immediate aftermath.

State immigration bills such as those passed in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona negatively impact not only immigrants and their families but society in general. They have wide-ranging externalities including lost productivity and revenues. They also have long-term implications for the well-being of our nation.

Fortunately, there are some states bucking the trend and providing more rational, productive and humane solutions to our broken immigration system.

A couple of weeks ago, Rhode Island’s Board of Governors for Higher Education, encouraged by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, approved the state’s version of the DREAM Act which will allow undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition beginning September 2012. Students without papers must show that they graduated from a Rhode Island high school which they attended for at least three years or received a GED certificate from the state. They must also sign an affidavit promising that they will pursue U.S. citizenship as soon as possible.

Last weekend, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the second half of his state’s DREAM Act. The first half, enacted in July, sanctioned private scholarships and loans for undocumented college students. These students, with the passage of the second bill, can now pay in-state tuition rates and apply for state aid.

The state DREAM Acts of Rhode Island and California, like other state versions of the stalled federal initiative to improve the prospects of young undocumented immigrants, does not include a path to citizenship. But they do allow motivated and able young people—in whom states have already invested public education—to obtain a college degree, earn better wages, pay taxes, contribute to the economy and give back to society.

Last Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring state agencies to make vital forms and instructions available in the six most common non-English languages spoken in the state. State agencies including the Office of Children & Family Services, Corrections, the health department, motor vehicles and welfare agencies will now have to provide free interpretation and translation services to assist the 13 percent of New Yorkers who do not speak English as their primary language. Cuomo argued that lawsuits and legislation have failed to address the problem and that access to state services can be a matter of life and death for some immigrants.

Finally, last week, the city commissioners of Dayton, Ohio voted to turn their city into an “immigrant friendly” destination with the explicit goal of replenishing the city’s shrinking immigrant community. The “Welcome Dayton” program seeks to reduce the barriers to immigrants who want to open new businesses and thereby spur investment in immigrant neighborhoods. The initiative aims to help immigrants by providing adults with ESL and literacy courses; actively involving local youth in community building; and encouraging cross-cultural events among Dayton’s cultural and arts organizations.

In California, Rhode Island, New York and Dayton, Ohio, rather than marginalizing immigrants and treating them as scapegoats for our difficult times, government is finding ways to integrate them. These state and city leaders see their immigrant populations as economically integral and as contributing members of society. They acknowledge that immigrants are crucial to our nation’s vitality and future.

One hopes that other states will be less reactionary—ala Alabama—and follow such reasonable responses to immigration.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, October 12, 2011.

Georgia’s Immigration Law Hurts Farms and the State Economy

Georgia’s draconian immigration law took effect Friday and it is now a felony in the state to present false documents when applying for a job.

Parts of the law were blocked by a U.S. district judge last week–but not all.

The new measure, like those passed in Arizona as well as Utah, North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama and South Carolina, primarily seeks to stanch what lawmakers see as the biggest immigration threat facing the nation, unauthorized immigrants. The problem with these policies is that they were crafted by legislators wearing such huge blinders that they and the constituencies who spurred them on failed to consider the implications.

Georgia farmers, for one, are already feeling the adverse effect of the newly minted law. CBS reports many Latino farmworkers are staying away, fearful of raids and crackdowns. The owner of a family-owned blueberry farm laments the loss of twenty acres worth of fruit that will rot away unpicked and cost him $200,000. He is also worrying about 600 acres of grapes that will be ready for harvest next month.

It’s clear the revenue loss at farms and other businesses that depend on immigrant labor will negatively impact Georgia’s economy and other states that tell undocumented immigrants to stay away. These policies will affect the lives and well-being of ordinary citizens who have allowed their fears about growing immigrant populations in their midst to cloud better judgment.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal does not worry about the loss of immigrant labor. He proposes that ex-convicts fill the jobs abandoned by Latino laborers. Farmers have not embraced Deal’s solution, however. “Let them in the governor’s mansion to be cooks and I’ll let them on my farm. I want my family to be as safe as the governor’s,” sixth-generation farmer Gary Paulk told Time.

Georgians would have been better served by their governor and lawmakers had they not honed in solely on undocumented immigrants with the intent of driving them out. These policymakers could have taken a broader view and carefully accounted for the economic implications of enacting such measures. Better still, they could have left it to the U.S. government to sort out the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, July 7, 2011.

Where Immigration Laws are Made Today – State Capitols and Federal Courts

One by one, states have been enacting their own immigration laws, a response to the lack of leadership and political will in Washington to fix our nation’s broken immigration system. Now we’re starting to see a double-edged trend.

In Arizona, Utah, North Carolina, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama and most recently South Carolina measures have been enacted which focus on what lawmakers see as an intractable problem, undocumented immigration in those states. In turn, federal courts have scrutinized these new measures and deemed parts of them untenable.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker blocked parts of Indiana’s new law Friday, reiterating that immigration is a federal matter. She also singled out two specific provisions in the law that “have proven to be seriously flawed and generally unsuccessful.” One has wording that would allow the arrest of anyone who has had any notice of action filed by immigration authorities, which could mean anyone applying to be in the country for any reason. The other is a measure that makes it illegal for immigrants to use identification cards issued by consulates.

Judge Thomas Thrash, also a federal judge, stopped parts of Georgia’s law on Monday which authorizes local authorities to check the immigration status of suspects who don’t produce proper identification and to detain undocumented immigrants. He also granted a request from civil rights groups to block provisions that penalize people who knowingly transport or harbor undocumented immigrants.

Indiana and Georgia’s stringent new laws join those of Arizona and Utah, key elements of which have been blocked by federal courts. I foresee other state immigration measures being challenged and stalled as well.

South Carolina legislators approved their own bill last week and Governor Nikki Haley quickly signed it into law. But the American Civil Liberties Union plans to contest it, just as it has challenged immigration statutes in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. The Palmetto State’s newly minted law should get to a federal judge shortly, who will most likely find fault with it.

This cycle will no doubt continue. As more states pursue their own immigration fixes, they’ll be met by court challenges, followed by injunctions. Then states will file appeals, on and on until Congress and the administration work together successfully to reform the system. Unfortunately the political reality guarantees that this will not happen anytime soon. Immigration is such a hot button issue, with little agreement on how it should be tackled, that our elected officials are more than happy to punt straight through 2012. In the meantime the federal courts will be a battle ground pitting states against civil rights groups, while many immigrants and their families continue to live in fear and uncertainty.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, June 30, 2011. Re-posted on NYC Media Alliance, July 7, 2011.