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Notes from the Ground

Letter from a Battleground State: Fighting for the Rights of Immigrants in Georgia

By Darlene Lynch, Head of External Relations, CVT Georgia
Published April 12, 2024
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Anti-immigrant rhetoric during an election year is nothing new, especially here in Georgia. In 2018, when I first joined CVT Georgia as the head of external relations, our current governor campaigned on a promise to round up “criminal illegals” in his personal pick-up truck and drop them off at the border. Not to be outdone, a rival candidate painted an old school bus military-gray and drove his “Deportation Bus” through the state’s immigrant communities. This included the City of Clarkston, home to CVT’s Georgia clinic and thousands of newly-arrived refugee families from countries worldwide.

Since that time, CVT has worked hard to build a bipartisan and broad network of support around Georgia refugees and immigrants, who are seeking to build full new lives in the state, just like our clients.

Working to Build a Supportive Georgia

We started this work by creating the state’s first partnership of business and civic leaders, all committed to including refugee and immigrant Georgians in the state’s economy and way of life. And last year, we marked a major milestone: Supporting and celebrating the introduction of more bipartisan legislation supporting refugees and immigrants than ever before in the state.

We welcomed that same governor and first lady to our annual New Americans Celebration, where they stood alongside newcomers from around the world and honored their contributions to Georgia.

We started this year hopeful, having laid the groundwork for new bipartisan legislation to expand access to higher education for refugee students, SB 264, and to streamline licensing for experienced healthcare professionals who came to Georgia from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Guatemala and beyond, SB 529.

Yet, the 2024 legislative session, which ended last week, turned out to be one of the most challenging on record. This is a letter from a battleground state, a report on how CVT fights to protect the rights of our clients wherever they call home, and a warning of more battles to come as election day nears.

Tragedy Used as a Weapon

We knew this would be a tough year in Georgia, with an increasingly contentious presidential election, a criminal trial of the former president in Atlanta and growing concerns about the southern border. But on February 22, a young nursing student was found dead on the University of Georgia campus, allegedly killed while on her morning run by a man from Venezuela who had entered the country unlawfully. 

It was the realization of the worst fear of young women and those who love them: Being violently attacked by someone while out alone.

But rather than bringing people together to combat violence against women, the case tore people apart and resurrected Americans’ biases against anyone newer to the country than themselves.

Old and discredited tropes that immigrants commit more crime than non-immigrants were repeated in the halls of legislatures across the country.  The case made headlines in national and global media and even found its way into this year’s State of the Union address, with one Georgia representative taunting the President to “say her name.”

Soon, the hopper at Georgia’s state capitol was full of bills scapegoating refugees and immigrants and penalizing cities that welcomed them. Some bills had been introduced and rejected many times over the years. But this year, they were applauded. And, some were reluctantly supported by Republican lawmakers who faced difficult primaries in the spring and immense pressure from leadership.

Anti-Immigrant Legislation

CVT Georgia has a small policy team, already working overtime to advance innovative bipartisan legislation to improve the lives of our clients and others. But, we quickly geared up to fight back against these new bills that would surely cause harm, including the 20-page Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act. This bill seeks to impose draconian penalties on Georgia municipalities and their employees for engaging in so-called sanctuary policies or failing to take sufficient action to enforce immigration law in their local communities.

If passed, this bill would require every city and county in the state to seek agreements with the federal government that empower local law enforcement to stop, arrest and detain individuals suspected of being “illegal aliens” and to issue regular reports on the immigration status of individual incarcerated in Georgia. Local authorities would face criminal charges and loss of state and federal funding for failure to comply.

The problem is that it’s hard for police to know if how someone entered the country when they encounter them in their communities. Existing law grants police immunity for being overly-aggressive and targeting lawful residents, while the new law punishes them for not being aggressive enough. 

This is a dangerous recipe for profiling, discrimination and destruction of the trust between law-abiding refugees and immigrants and the police sworn to protect them.

CVT’s Fight for Equitable Policies

To fight back, CVT joined an ad hoc coalition of immigrant advocacy groups, representing diverse communities across the state. Although our team is small, we were able to enlist the support of the coalitions that we lead or have led, including the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies, the Business & Immigration for Georgia (BIG) Partnership, and the Georgia Immigration Collaborative.

As a result of our bipartisan work, we were also able to connect with Republican lawmakers who have supported our legislation and a wide array of allies from the business, healthcare, academic, faith, veterans and other communities that are often outside the circles of traditional immigrant advocacy groups.

Maintaining Hope for 2025

While we didn’t prevail, CVT played a key role in ensuring the outcome was much better than it could have been. Bills, like the Criminal Alien Track and Report Act, were substantially weakened, while others, like one that would have authorized Georgia citizens to sue Georgia cities believed to be too “welcoming,” died. 

We advanced both our bill to help refugee youth access in-state tuition and our bill to create a new pathway to practice for refugee and immigrant doctors. The latter had a particularly successful run, attracting powerful sponsors from both sides of the aisle. This bill won a coveted last-minute hearing from a Republican chairman, advancing further as part of other Republican-led bills and passing in the House in the final evening hours of the legislative session.  Although the clock ultimately ran out, we are once again hopeful for next year.

In the meantime, we’ll be working to minimize the effects of the bad bills and shore up the strength of the good ones. We’ll strengthen the bonds we created with other immigrant advocacy groups and find new ways to work together to protect the rights of the communities we serve. 

And, we’ll continue to fight to keep Georgia a safe and welcoming place for survivors of torture and their families, a place where they are free from predatory pick-up trucks and deportation buses.   

About The Author
Darlene Lynch
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