As a proud new member of the Coalition of Refugee Serving Agencies in Georgia, CVT Georgia helped organize the sixth annual New Americans Celebration at the Georgia State Capitol on February 14.
More than 300 Georgians, including many new Americans, filled the Capitol on Valentine’s Day to show their support for the state’s one million refugees and immigrants and their contributions to the state.
The turnout was impressive for this solidly Republican state in the Deep South, but there was something else truly remarkable about the day: For the first time ever, Georgia’s state and federal legislators joined the event in a public display of bipartisan support.
This year, the Republican leaders of the Georgia House and Senate sponsored New Americans Day resolutions, commending “the manifold contributions of immigrants to the State of Georgia.” Republican Governor Brian Kemp saluted the large crowd and joined it for a commemorative photo. And, in what is hoped to be a new tradition, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R) and U.S. Representatives Hank Johnson (D), John Lewis (D), Lucy McBath (D) and Rob Woodall (R) sent their district staff.
Senator Isakson’s participation sent a particularly powerful message, coming on the heels of the longest federal government shutdown in history – a shutdown prompted by fear and hostility toward immigrants and the President’s insistence on building a billion-dollar border wall. On January 24, Senator Isakson had had enough. He took the Senate floor to make an impassioned plea for a return to a bipartisan, common-sense approach to immigration. “We need to take off our armor, leave our weapons at the door,” he said, and “sit down and pass a bill to get Americans back to work and restore the spirit of Ellis Island and the pride of the United States of America.”
On Valentine’s Day, Senator Isakson and his fellow Georgia legislators chose to lead by example. They came together to embrace the New Americans Celebration in their home state and honor the “spirit of Ellis Island.” The day was an opportunity to learn the facts about immigration in Georgia: that more than 10 percent of Georgians are immigrants and nearly half are naturalized citizens and that one in five of Georgia’s small business owners and one in seven of its workers are foreign-born. It was a time to honor the struggles that refugees and immigrants must overcome and the myriad ways in which they give back to their communities.
Finally, it was a rare chance to be inspired by New Americans who shared personal stories of courage and resilience, gratitude and patriotism. Here are quotes from their remarks:
“When I had to leave my homeland, I took very few things with me, but I had more treasure than I realized. I had my food, my family’s recipes . . . And now thanks to the support of organizations and people like you, I am a business owner.” A successful entrepreneur from Syria who is creating jobs for others.
“I have a dream that one day everyone will be welcome and treated fairly—if we can dream it, we can achieve it. Let refugees have a dream, and welcome them in Georgia.” An honors student from Burma who is pursuing her studies at a top Georgia university.
“Tragedy and anxiety wouldn’t define my life—I would.” A professional from Iraq with advanced biotechnology training who switched careers to help refugees find meaningful employment
“I voted for the first time on November 6, 2018. What a joy to express my voice! What a joy to realize political leaders needed my voice” A Lutheran minister from the Democratic Republic of Congo who recently celebrated becoming a naturalized citizen.
This year’s New Americans Celebration was remarkable in many ways, perhaps the most remarkable of all was that, at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is so prominent, Georgia sent a Valentine to the refugees and immigrants who have made our state, and our nation, great.