GOP can’t slam immigrants and then expect them to embrace party

It didn’t draw much attention at the time, at least not in most communities. But last year, Gov. Nathan Deal quietly asked the federal government to reduce the number of war and humanitarian refugees being settled in Georgia. As Deal and his administration saw it, Georgia could no longer handle the flow of those refugees into the state, even though they come with substantial federal aid.

How large a flow? According to an AJC analysis of state and federal records in February, we accepted a total of 16,090 refugees from 2007-2012, an average of fewer than 2,700 a year. During that same time frame, according to the Census Bureau, our overall population grew by 375,000.

I have visited with and talked to some of those refugees, and to those Georgians who have committed their lives to easing the refugees’ transition into the American culture. My wife has worked on literacy programs to help teach these people English and basic survival skills, and has spoken in awe of their work ethic and character. As a rule, these are proud people, strong people. Weak people do not pick up and move half way across the world, to a place and a culture they do not know, in hopes of making something better for themselves and their families.

These people and their children will in time make immense contributions to the state of Georgia. They value education; they are entrepreneurial and they want nothing more than to be American.

But last weekend, at the 2013 Georgia Republican Convention in Athens, the governor used those people as a cheap applause line, telling the assembled crowd that he had told the federal government to stop “dumping” so many refugees on Georgia. That’s the term he used, “dumping,” as if they were some form of human trash. He also cited the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, pointing out that it had been perpetrated by two young men who had been admitted to this country as young refugees. Apparently, he deemed those murderers as more typical or symptomatic than, for example, the more than 700 immigrants who have earned the Medal of Honor for valor in defending this country in time of war.

It’s an odd and telling thing to stress, if you think about it. Deal has served in the state’s highest office for more than two years now, and these are not simple times. During that time frame, reducing the number of refugees being settled annually in the state by a few hundred people has to rank as pretty insignificant among all the thousands of problems to cross his desk. Yet that’s the decision that he chose to highlight and brag about to his fellow Republicans. That’s the one that he thought they would want to hear about.

The decision was especially strange given what else Deal had to say. Like political guru Karl Rove, who also spoke to the convention, Deal reminded his audience that the face of America and the face of Georgia is changing, clueing them in to the “shocking” fact that 56 percent of the students in public classrooms across the state are non-white. To continue to thrive, the Republican Party would have to change to reflect that new reality, he told them.

“If you want to know what the future electorate of Georgia looks like, look at those who are in the schools right now,” Deal said, as reported by the AJC’s Jim Galloway and Daniel Malloy. “And if we do not recognize that and if we don’t reach out to them, then shame on us.”

He’s right of course. But you don’t sell that message of inclusion and welcome by complaining that fewer than 3,000 refugees a year are being “dumped” on a state of 10 million people. That rhetoric doesn’t sound quite so convincing when all four of your party’s candidates for U.S. Senate pledge to oppose a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.

You can’t pander to fear of The Other and then expect The Other to feel welcome. You can’t encourage students now in school to think of themselves as Republican while you tell their parents to self-deport and use them as a political rallying point.

Things don’t work like that. People don’t work like that. If you want to convince people that they are welcome in your party, it helps if you actually mean it.