Georgia drew national attention and a federal court challenge three years ago when it followed Arizona’s lead and enacted a tough law to crack down on illegal immigration.
Like the law passed in Arizona in 2010, Georgia’s statute gives police the authority to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. That law and the wave of unaccompanied Central American children coming to Georgia have emerged as flash points in the gubernatorial race between Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter.
Carter — who voted against House Bill 87 in 2011 — said in an interview this month that the measure has harmed Georgia’s reputation and created an “economic disaster” for the state’s largest industry, agriculture. Deal, who signed HB 87, responded that upholding the rule of law is important to Georgians. His campaign pointed out Carter’s opposition to the law last month, the same day Deal sent a scathing letter to President Barack Obama about the hundreds of immigrant children arriving in Georgia.
Their exchange of fire illuminates the sharp differences between the two candidates on immigration policy as they reach out to Georgia’s growing numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters.
Each group represents less than 2 percent of the state’s voters. But Georgia’s number of active Asian voters has ballooned by 466 percent since 2003 to 64,645. Meanwhile, the state’s Hispanic voter population expanded by 570 percent to 84,925.
Those voters are paying close attention to what the candidates are saying about immigration, said Jeffrey Tapia, executive director of the Atlanta-based Latin American Association, and Helen Ho, who leads the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center in Doraville.
“Latinos and Asians are the two fastest-growing electorates,” Ho said. “Which party wants to survive long-term? It’s the party that knows how to speak to these constituents.”
Immigration is also a major concern for Georgia businessmen who rely on migrant labor, including those in the state’s $71.1 billion agricultural industry. Georgia farmers are pushing to replace the federal government’s temporary foreign guest worker program, saying it is too cumbersome and expensive.
Immigration policy “is at the top of our priority list, and it is critical to us staying in business,” said Dick Minor, a South Georgia farmer and past president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “We will support the candidate we see the most benefit in.”
Carter and Deal are colliding over the issue as immigration legislation remains stalled in Congress. Last year, the Democratic-led Senate passed bipartisan legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S. The legislation also aims to clear out massive backlogs in the nation’s legal immigration system and make it easier for farmers to hire foreign guest workers. House Republican leaders have rejected the measure largely because of the citizenship provision for immigrants without legal status. They say it would reward lawbreakers and invite more illegal immigration.
Immigration has yet to play a big part in the U.S. Senate contest between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue, though that will likely change as the Nov. 4 election nears. In the closing days of his Republican primary runoff against U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, Perdue lobbed attacks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which endorsed Kingston — for backing the Senate immigration bill, even though Kingston opposed it, too. In contrast, Nunn has called for an immigration overhaul that would provide “an accountable pathway to citizenship” to require immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to learn English, pass a background check and pay back taxes. She views it as an economic necessity that can cut the national deficit by $850 billion through 2033.
Deal and Carter started clashing over immigration last month, when the governor fired off his letter to Obama about the unaccompanied immigrant children coming to Georgia. In his letter, the governor sharply asked Obama how his administration had decided to transfer 1,154 of the children to the care of sponsors in Georgia. Deal also inquired about their immigration status and what services they would need, while saying Georgia has received a “disproportionate number” of refugees in recent years.
Reacting to Deal’s letter, a spokesman for Carter said “the humanitarian crisis on the border can only be solved at the federal level. Congress must act quickly to secure our border and fix our broken immigration system.”
The same day Deal sent his letter, his campaign blasted Carter for voting against Georgia’s immigration law. Among other things, HB 87 requires many businesses to use a federal work authorization program called E-Verify. The law’s supporters say it helps protect the state’s taxpayer-funded resources by deterring illegal immigration. Georgia was home to 400,000 immigrants without legal status in 2012, according to a U.S. Homeland Security Department estimate. That is down 40,000 from 2011.
A coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups sued to block parts of the law, calling them unconstitutional. Federal courts sustained some parts but blocked one that would severely punish people who — while committing another crime — are caught knowingly transporting or harboring immigrants without papers.
During the court battle, many migrant Hispanic farm laborers fled Georgia or looked for jobs in other states. After the governor signed HB 87 in 2011, the state’s agricultural industry identified a shortage of 5,244 farm laborers and $74.9 million in losses on seven crops in Georgia.
Carter hasn’t made immigration a theme of his campaign — he rarely mentions it at campaign stops in Atlanta — but he’s apt to highlight the economic aftershock of HB 87 when he’s in rural Georgia.
“I am on the record in opposition to HB 87,” he said in an interview last week after a Gwinnett County economic summit. “It was an economic disaster to our agricultural community, and it badly damaged our state’s reputation. I think we are still feeling the repercussions.”
Deal dismissed Carter’s concerns during an interview the next day and said while HB 87 had ripple effects for the agricultural industry, it served as a compelling reminder that the federal government should address the issue.
“The agricultural community has tried really hard to comply with the guest worker provisions,” he said. “They are very cumbersome and they are very expensive. I think everybody understands the rule of law and the enforcement of the law is important to Georgia residents.”
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