Opinion: DACA recipients are Georgians too

Tuesday, after months of shifting public statements from the President, his Administration has announced the end of DACA. The decision to rescind that important federal immigration program threatens the future of almost 29,000 talented young Georgians who have been covered by the program for several years. We should stand with these Georgians, not threaten them with deportation, and we should use this as an opportunity to achieve real and comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.

Across the country, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – known as DACA – had protected from the possibility of deportation roughly 800,000 young immigrants who have grown up in the United States. These young adults were all brought here as children before they were old enough to choose where to live. All DACA recipients have been living in this country continuously since at least 2007, before President Trump’s predecessor took office, and many have been living in Georgia much longer than that. After their arrivals many years ago, they planted roots in our state and, despite large challenges, are working hard and getting by. The vast majority are employed in full-time positions for Georgia businesses. Some work in the service industries that are vital to our state’s local economy, and many others are thriving as young professionals, teachers, pastors, and entrepreneurs. Thanks to the program, all have been working legally.

Much like my four kids, these young immigrants were, in the words of Zac Brown, “raised up beneath the shade of a Georgia pine.” For them, like my kids, this is home. I’ve prayed with them in Georgia churches where, like many in our communities, they praise God for their lives. I’ve seen them in Georgia schools where they have learned to pledge allegiance to the American flag and to work hard chasing the American Dream. It’s safe to say that there’s more red clay under their fingernails than mine. These are good people, hardworking Georgians, who we would all be proud to call neighbors. They deserve a chance to keep growing up here beneath the shade of our Southern pines.

The DACA recipients in Georgia are far more likely to say “y’all” than “ustedes,” more likely to wear a Braves cap than one from a team in their countries of birth. They were brought to Georgia from across the globe, not just from a single country, and they speak many languages in addition to English. DACA allowed them to come out of the proverbial shadows and contribute openly to our communities. They signed up for the program eagerly, gave their fingerprints and addresses to the federal government, and passed extensive criminal background checks. They are not criminals or “bad hombres” – a criminal history would have disqualified them from the program. These are young adults of promise and good character. They graduated from our public schools; obtained social security numbers and authorization cards to live and work legally in the United States; and have paid their income taxes and immigration fees. We have invested heavily in their K-12 public educations and, unless we turn them away, the increasingly global economy of our state stands to gain from their language skills, creativity and work ethic.

Truth be told, many of our immigrant neighbors are more Georgian than those of us who moved here as adults for a career. So when we talk about DACA and the young people impacted by its elimination, it’s important to make clear that this is not an issue of “us” and “them.” They are us. They are Georgians. With their multilingual and multicultural skills, they will help drive the economic engine of our state in the 21st Century – unless we don’t let them.

Many in the immigrant advocacy community were hoping that this day would not come. The President had relented on his campaign promise to end DACA on his first day in office. He said he would “take care” of DACA recipients because, he explained, “I do have a big heart.” But something led to a change of that presidential heart, and Tuesday he dispatched his Attorney General to announce that DACA will end.

While it would be easy to say that these are dark days for immigrant communities in our state, the Georgians we serve at the Latin American Association are strong and resilient. Like generations of American immigrants before them, these DACA recipients have worked hard to adapt, integrate, and thrive. They will step up. They will press our political leaders for continued recognition and a legislative solution to the legal limbo into which they are being thrown. And they will not be alone. There are many Georgians – and Georgia organizations, and Georgia faith communities – that remain committed to pressing for the legal rights of the immigrant neighbors living among us.

We do not need to view the death of DACA as a defeat. In fact, we should use it as a call to action. Our ultimate goal should be a comprehensive federal immigration reform bill that would provide a realistic path to legal status for all the immigrants who have been contributing to our local communities in positive ways. In the meantime, all people of goodwill should urge Congress to take up and pass the bipartisan 2017 DREAM Act, a Senate bill that would give DACA recipients immediate legislative protection. It’s in our collective interest to keep supporting these young Georgians and their families. Our Georgia communities will be stronger, and richer, if we can find the political will to continue allowing these hardworking neighbors to contribute to the state that we all call home.