AJC Refused to Publish This Column Welcoming #Immigrants to #Georgia

The state of Georgia is home to about a million immigrants.  Some are here on student visas. Some are awaiting a green card.  Some fled war zones and are seeking refugee status.  Some fled economic devastation and came looking for work, no matter strenuous and how low paying.  Some were brought here as children by their parents, and know no other home than Georgia.  

Do we want them here?

Absolutely.   Here’s why.

Immigrants reduce crime.  That’s right. The more immigrants we can attract and keep here in Georgia, the safer we will be.  Research by unbiased social scientists directly contradicts the hysteria ginned up by politicians who are more interested in their own careers than the well being of their constituents.  A recent study by University of Colorado professor Tim Wadsworth confirms the results published last year by a group of criminologists led by Jacob Stowell at the University of Massachusetts, as well as a separate study by Graham Ousey and Charis Kubrin, that immigration lowers violent crime rates.  The number of homicides drop. There are fewer robberies.  It’s not just by a little bit – Wadsworth’s research led him to conclude that “growth in immigration may have been responsible for part of the precipitous crime drop of the 1990s.” And it makes no difference whether the immigrants are documented or undocumented.  More immigrants result in less crime.

Immigrants boost the economy.  Immigrants pour billions of dollars into the state’s economy, buying your Ford F150 off of craigslist, the house down the street, kale and peaches from the farmer’s market, Braves tickets, and dinner at Mary Mac’s. Undocumented immigrants alone make a direct contribution of $250 million to Georgia’s coffers every year in sales, income and property taxes.   Advocates for comprehensive immigration reform point out that changing the law to allow undocumented immigrants to become legal residents or citizens would create jobs, increase wages and generate more tax revenue, adding an estimated $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over the next decade.  Since the economic benefits will concentrate in places where there are large numbers of immigrants, Georgia  should do what it can now to welcome immigrant families.

Immigrants keep Georgia young and vibrant.  Since 1990, immigrants have been a founding partner in over a quarter of all venture-backed public companies. This enterprising spirit is partly a function of age – immigrants tend to be young – and partly due to a preference for starting small business ventures over entering corporate life.   As Georgia gets to work digging ourselves out of the great recession, we need as many entrepreneurs as we can get.   

So why are some Georgia legislators trying to drive immigrants out of Georgia?  House Bill 87, dropped last week, is modeled after Arizona’s SB1070, a showboat – and apparently unconstitutional – law designed to scare away undocumented immigrants by turning local law enforcement officers into immigration police. 

A federal judge has blocked the most extreme parts of Arizona’s SB 1070, on the principle that certain things are exclusively within the powers of the federal government.  Waging war is one of them.  Immigration is another.  Just as the individual states have no business declaring war against, say, France, nor may they take control over immigration policy.

The injunction may have come too late, though, to save Arizona from itself. Arizona’s immigrants have started moving out of the state by the thousands, leaving empty houses in a state already rocked by foreclosures.  The state of Arizona has the third worst foreclosure rate in the country, with one out of every 189 housing units in foreclosure.  The impact is even greater in Phoenix, where Sheriff Joe Arpiao supplements his paid police force with “deputized” volunteers instructed to target and harass immigrants.  There, the foreclosure rate has soared to an astounding 1 out of every 23 housing units.  Even in families where only one person is out of status, entire families have picked up and moved, taking with them millions of dollars they will now use to goose the economy of some other state.

If the Georgia legislature had the power to do so, the best thing it could do for our state would be to provide legal status to the approximately 500,000 immigrants living here who are currently out of status.  But just as a state cannot enforce immigration laws, nor can it change a person’s immigration status.

So what to do? Grandstanding – and unconstitutional – legislation like HB87 is certainly not the right answer.  Rather, Georgia’s legislators should be finding ways to welcome and protect all immigrants – including those who are currently out of status – for as long as it takes Congress to get its act together to pass federal immigration reform.  Given the current composition of Congress, it may be years before Congress gets around to updating the immigration quotas so that Georgia’s approximately 500,000 immigrants can come into legal status. But that day will come. In the meantime, Georgia’s best move is to make them safe and welcome residents of our state.

Kung Li, Fellow, Open Society Institute