The border looms large among Georgia voters’ concerns. Here’s why

Conservatives in Georgia indicate immigration is on their minds this election cycle.

At the conclusion of a Herschel Walker campaign event in Gwinnett County last month, Republican voter Claire Harrison used a football term — “flood the zone” — to describe what is taking place at the southern U.S. border, one of the issues that most animates her in the lead-up to election day.

In her view, record-setting numbers of migrant apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border under President Joe Biden are “overwhelming the system.”

“It’s out of control. … All countries [need] a monitored border for the safety of their citizens. We’re no different,” she said. “It’s hard to even recognize our country.”

Harrison’s worries are far from unique. Immigration and border security was the fourth most cited issue of concern by voters surveyed last month in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll. When likely general election voters were asked for their top two issues, immigration and border security ranked third, with 30% of participants expressing concern.

To be sure, major concerns over immigration are not bipartisan. That comes into focus when respondents to the AJC poll are separated by party affiliation: Republicans deemed immigration and border security their top issue; Democrats seemed to barely register it.

In recent interviews, Georgia Republican voters said they aren’t opposed to all immigration, citing immigrant workers’ contributions to some of the state’s biggest industries.

But they’re troubled by a perception that border crossers are unvetted, and that U.S. authorities don’t know who they are.

It’s a worry that may be at least partly misplaced. In recent months, according to government data, roughly 35% of apprehensions at the southern border have led to immediate expulsion, on the basis of a pandemic-era rule put in place by President Donald Trump. And those temporarily released into the U.S. must first undergo security screenings and then check in regularly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

It’s not clear how many thousands of immigrants have been allowed to enter the country recently to begin the process of applying for asylum. Those who qualify to stay in the U.S. would be subject to persecution based on their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group [or] political opinion” if sent back home.

The influx of people at the southern border received a fresh round of attention last month, when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida arranged for a group of border crossers allowed into the U.S. to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard, a popular vacation destination in Massachusetts. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, had previously kicked off a campaign to bus migrants to Democratic strongholds across the country.

Where candidates stand

Despite many voters’ concerns, immigration hasn’t taken as prominent a role on the Georgia campaign trail as in the past.

Four years ago, Gov. Brian Kemp promised to enact sweeping crackdowns on unauthorized immigration, making national headlines when he vowed from a pickup truck to “round up criminal illegals” himself. Those promises went unfilled, an unsurprising development given state leaders have no say over federal immigration policy.

“Kemp’s hands have basically been tied,” said Mike Upchurch, a Republican voter from Acworth who staunchly opposes immigration of any kind and plans to support the governor’s reelection bid.

Even as Kemp has made multiple, highly publicized trips to the border during his tenure and referred to the situation there as an “invasion,” there have been no pickup truck stunts this election cycle — a change in strategy some Republican leaders say could be beneficial in the party’s attempts to court Hispanic voters.

Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic opponent, says on her website that she intends to “work to create a Georgia that welcomes immigrants and allows all communities to thrive.”

The winner of Georgia’s U.S. Senate race will be the officeholder with greater influence over immigration policy.

Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock says he supports enacting comprehensive immigration reform that “fixes what is broken in our system” and “provides a reasonable path to citizenship.” His website expresses support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which shields hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation — and calls for the “thoughtful management and oversight of ICE.” Despite those positions, he angered local immigrant rights advocates when he opposed President Biden’s decision to reverse a Trump-era border policy.

Republican challenger Herschel Walker — who lived for years in Texas — frequently denounces the “mess” at the southern border in campaign speeches. He said he supported Trump’s plan to build a border wall, but distanced himself from Trump’s goal of deporting millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.

Some Republican voters have said they worry that those who crossed the border illegally are “cutting in line” in front of people trying to use the system to get legal status, and that they take an undue toll on the country’s resources, even though unauthorized immigrants are ineligible for most federally-funded safety net programs.

“They’re making it sound like Republicans are just heartless people, we are just prejudiced people, we don’t want anyone coming. That is absolutely not true,” said Pamela Alayon, a Cobb County resident. But, “It’s like if you’re standing in line at the supermarket to get your food — somebody comes off the street, cuts the line. Any person would say ‘What are you doing? Excuse me, I’ve been waiting.’”

For others, immigration feels like a visceral threat to their community’s identity.

Upchurch, a native Atlantan, says he moved to Acworth in northern Cobb County to “get away” from changes taking place closer to town.

Immigration is “destroying our way of life and our culture,” he said. “It’s our culture. No one’s allowed to change that, nobody. … We are importing our demise.”

Immigrant advocates weigh in

Luis Zaldivar is the Georgia director of CASA, a progressive immigrant rights group. He worries border security is monopolizing immigration policy discussion at the expense of issues he considers more relevant to Georgia. Last month, CASA helped stage a protest in front of the Georgia Capitol to call for humanitarian relief for Central American exiles.

Zaldivar is also concerned about the fate of the 19,500 DACA recipients who call Georgia home. Last week, a federal appeals court ruled against DACA, putting the future of the program in jeopardy.

“It is impossible for us to have a conversation either at the national level or at the local level about immigration without the border being brought up,” Zaldivar said.

For Darlene Lynch, chair of Georgia’s Business & Immigration Partnership, election rhetoric around immigration isn’t representative of Georgia values.

“I think we are seeing a lot of this maybe national kind of rhetoric that’s designed to incite fear. But in our day-to-day lives in Georgia, I think most people realize that foreign-born Georgians are their neighbors and their colleagues.”

In her own work, Lynch says she regularly finds bipartisan interest in supporting immigrant workers so they can address key Georgia labor shortages.

“I’ll be glad when this election is over and we just get down to business,” Lynch said. “Because that’s what Georgia does, you know, get down to business.”

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