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Georgia, Latinos, and the Latino Vote

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Georgia lawmakers are at it again, less than a year after passing their own version of Arizona's hardcore immigration law. They tried to pass a statute that would have made life all the more difficult for many immigrants. SB 458 would have rendered foreign passports unacceptable as identification when conducting business with government agencies. Obtaining marriage licenses or signing up for water and sewage service for instance could have become insurmountable challenges.

Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, has been at the forefront of the battle for immigrants' rightful place in Georgia. He discussed the state's attrition-through-enforcement initiatives.

Proponents of immigration measures have argued that unauthorized immigrants have strained state resources and are criminals who ought to be held to account. Gonzalez thinks that race is an impetus.

"The Deep South has not dealt with the issue of race in a good way and this is a way that issue could come to the forefront without being racial," he argued. "I think it provides a venue for people with some of the old prejudices to use it as a vehicle for furthering prejudice."

Gonzalez is hoping though that the devastating effects and backlash against Georgia's immigration law has turned the tide on anti-immigrant fervor. He witnessed a slight shift with SB 458.

"I think the appetite for this type of anti-immigrant stuff has waned," he said

The bill originally had a provision which would have denied undocumented youth access to state colleges and universities. A couple of days before the House were to vote on the measure however, the provision was stricken out.

Gonzalez said that prohibiting access to higher education had become "an unpalatable position for many Republican legislators," who control both Georgia's General Assembly and Senate. "If they wanted something to pass they could make it pass early on, even as a standalone bill."

He believes that the personal experience and connection of key Republicans contributed to the demise of the measure.

Rep. Carl Rogers, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, tabled a similar House measure early in the legislative session. Rogers is from Gainesville which has a large Latino population.

"Gainesville would not be around had it not been for the Latino community," Gonzalez said. He suspects that Rogers knew of many young students who would have been adversely affected by the bill. "You can't be from Gainesville and claim ignorance about people who are undocumented."

Sen. Tommie Williams also briefly proposed and withdrew an amendment that would have created Georgia's version of the DREAM Act. Gonzalez said that it is likely that Williams' daughter would have friends who are without papers.

"The senator saw the real implication of denying access to those kids that his daughter plays with right now so that is what I think moved the senator," Gonzalez said, "it showed some sentiment and concern in that regard."

Gonzalez acknowledges the work of the broad coalition which has coalesced against anti-immigrant initiatives - Latino advocates, educators, African American leaders, faith-based groups, the Asian community, the LGBT community, and others.

"Injustice whether a person's gay, whether a person's an immigrant, whether a person's African American, I think there's been greater solidarity built across different groups," he said.

There remains much more work to be done, especially during the upcoming elections. Latinos and other immigrant communities need to vote and vote into office those who have their best interest in mind.

"Clearly we know President Obama has his failures as a president with regards to immigration reform and being known as the deportation president," he said. "Clearly we know the views of the leading presidential nominees in the Republican side. So I think Latinos are going to be having to make some very hard choices."

Gonzalez believes at the end of the day, it will be about how the Latino community has been treated.

"When kids are being called beaners in school, when kids are being bullied because they have Spanish accents, it touches the Latino community in very deep personal ways," he said, "immigration is an issue of respect and that's how Latinos in Georgia will vote."

SB 458 did not pass Georgia's current legislative session which ended last Thursday, but it could be resuscitated later.

Gonzalez is unfazed. "We've defeated English-only for drivers' licenses three to four times already." He also thinks reason prevailed.

"Only 2 percent of GOP voters thought immigration was a major issue during the most recent GOP presidential primary. It was not something they needed to do."

In the meantime, Latinos and other immigrant communities nationwide weigh their options for November. I believe they will go to the polls remembering how promises have been broken and threats made, how they have been marginalized, and how they have been used as pawns.