Opinion: We can have secure border and humane immigration policy

Republicans have been quick to seize on the tragic death of Laken Riley. Her story is horrifying, and, as an instructor at UGA, I know the sorrow the community feels. We hold her family, her friends in our hearts.

But even as we grieve, the governor and Republicans in Georgia are whipping up an anti-immigrant furor and by doing so, crushing any effort to reform our disastrous and tormented immigration system. All of our immigrant families are about to get caught in this dragnet. We’ve seen this happen over and over again.

As someone who campaigned for years in one of the most immigrant heavy districts in the country, issues around the border and immigration were some of the most heartbreaking and frustrating that I encountered. I am not one to defend the administration’s border policies – our borders must have integrity and we cannot take everyone into this country who wishes to come. But I also believe we need to reform, streamline and increase legal paths to immigration and citizenship to this country.

 Carolyn Bourdeaux

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

I know the governor is going to go to immigrant communities in Gwinnett and elsewhere and assure them that he supports legal paths to reform. But that’s not actually the case. Republicans love playing keep away with Democrats on immigration reform – why solve the problem when you can keep the situation at crisis pitch and reap the political rewards?

I personally saw it happen as I worked on immigration bill after immigration bill in Congress to address the bizarre and perverse problems in our system: (legitimate) refugees languishing without work permits in an economy starved for labor; children of immigrants from India who had lived in this country all of their lives, but merely because they were from India, faced deportation at 18; Afghan refugees who had helped American soldiers and were unable to get into this country after we left.

I will never forget their relatives and friends, often soldiers who had served with them, desperately showing me pictures of their black and blue bodies from the beatings at the hands of the Taliban – begging me to help before they were killed.

I will never forget sitting next to a Honduran man weeping as he told me about his brother who was deported to the gang violence of Honduras. His brother’s wife and children were raped and his brother was beheaded and had his hands and feet chopped off. And this is just a taste of the stories I bore witness to and was so frequently infuriatingly helpless to resolve.

This is what our current immigration system does to people. And every bill I worked on failed because the Republican leadership would not let the legislation pass, not even tightly crafted bipartisan bills to help DREAMERS, documented DREAMERS, farmworkers or Afghan refugees.

And we are seeing it happen again with the repeated failure of bipartisan immigration reform to move through Congress now. Biden even went so far as to tell Republicans that they could have everything they wanted in border policy – everything – much to the fury of immigration advocates on the left. And with one call from former President Trump, Republicans walked away. Again.

I’ve found that some immigrant groups like to think that they are exempt or special. I remember visiting with members of the Vietnamese community in 2018, many of them staunch Republicans. I raised my concerns with them about President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies but they brushed me off with words to the effect that “our community came to this country legally.”

But it was not long before the Trump Administration proposed to revoke a special immigrant status for thousands of Vietnamese refugees and deport them back to Vietnam, potentially to poverty and imprisonment.

Every person in Georgia who is an immigrant or has an immigrant in their family, or employs an immigrant or is friends with an immigrant or in any way is touched by our very diverse and dynamic immigrant communities needs to know: this is not just about the border, this is not just about an undocumented immigrant who allegedly killed a young woman, this is not just about “illegal immigration,” this is not just about immigrants from Venezuela or Hispanic immigrants, this is about you.

The vast majority of Americans know we can have both a tightly secured border and a reasoned and humane immigration policy. It has never been “either/or.” And our elected leadership owes it to the citizens of Georgia, the increasingly diverse citizens of Georgia, to avoid feeding the anti-immigrant outrage industry and fix our broken immigration system.

Carolyn Bourdeaux is a former member of Congress from Georgia’s 7th District. She is a contributor to the AJC Opinion page.