Georgia legislature headed toward a controversial crackdown on illegal immigration

A couple of weeks ago, representatives of affected industries — especially agriculture — seemed like they would sway the Georgia legislature away from passing an “Arizona-style” law targeting illegal immigrants. But it looks at this point that some version of that law is more likely to pass than not.

The bill that has just gotten out of a House committee is summarized here. That version would inevitably lead to all sorts of constitutional challenges, contains requirements that some businesses would find onerous (like the mandated use of the federal E-verify program if there are more than 4 employees), would put good Samaritans at risk of arrest if they happen to get stopped by police for any reason while transporting or helping someone who is undocumented, and would encourage law enforcement to seek citizenship verification when there is reason to doubt that someone is in the country illegally.

For an overview of the problems with these and other provisions in a similar bill working its way through the state senate, check out this excellent post at Peach Pundit: “This Is Georgia, Not Arizona”. It’s written by a right-leaning commentator who argues that the proposed bills are out of touch with the reality on the ground — for businesses, for courts and prisons, and for those who will have to spend time and money fighting the legal challenges.

I’d like to bring up a few other issues here.

First, there’s the chilling effect that a bill like those that have so far been proposed could have for Latinos who are in the country legally. Given a choice to move to any state, why would anyone want to come to one where a criminal investigation could begin simply because someone engaged in a questionable activity (running a stop sign? jaywalking?) cannot produce citizenship verification? And let’s say you’re a member of an extended Latino family and just one of your family is not here legally?

Georgia right now is burdened with excess residential units, and those boom-year projections for population growth assumed a continued influx of Latino immigrants. We need people in this state right now, and the Hispanic population has been growing faster than any other demographic.

Second, there have been few if any media outlets in the state that have published the simple facts to counter the central myth surrounding undocumented immigrants: “They don’t pay taxes.”

Sure they do. They pay sales taxes. They rent units — and sometimes even buy homes — so they are directly or indirectly paying property taxes. And, perhaps most importantly, a significant portion of illegal immigrants (maybe about half of all those who work) are actually having taxes withheld from their paychecks. That money is going into social security, etc., but those workers might never see those benefits since the social security numbers are bogus. Some would qualify for tax refunds if they were citizens, but get nothing back. There are lots of media outlets that have reported these basic facts, but still the “no taxes” myth lingers. (Here is a good, clear piece from USA Today on the issue.)

It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that illegal immigrants have a higher labor force participation rate than other demographic groups, making them crucial contributors to the U.S. economy.

At the end of the day, I’m more concerned about the human toll of a crackdown than anything else. There are young people in Georgia right now who do not have citizenship even as they join the army, go to college, and generally try to be good citizens. There are young people who are citizens but their parents are not, which leads to all sorts of problems. In a utopian world, we can simply ship all undocumented people out and tell them to come back through legal channels, but the reality is much more slippery than that.

And I’m not just concerned about the stresses that this crackdown will place on workers and children who are trying to make the best of their lives. I’m concerned about those who seem so eager to demonize, dehumanize, and scapegoat those who are in the U.S. illegally. I find some of the anger and bitterness simply mind-boggling.

Rather than embracing an Arizona-style crackdown, we need to be taking reasonable steps to provide a path to citizenship for those who are currently important members of our culture and economy.

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