04/13/2012

Some in Georgia Still Oppose Governing by Fear

My spirits were already low as I left a committee meeting by Georgia legislators. The panel had just approved SB 458, a bill that included a provision to deny undocumented immigrant students access to all of the state’s public colleges and universities.

Legislation born out of misinformation and xenophobia was a step closer to becoming the law of the land. As I walked through the door, a woman angrily stared at me. She told me that if I didn’t like it, I should “go back where I came from.” 

I am exactly where I belong.

I am a U.S. citizen. I’m a 24-year-old woman who has called Georgia my home since my ninth birthday. I can vote. I can attend any college or university in Georgia – or any other state – if I meet the academic qualifications.

And yet my brown skin makes me in the eyes of this woman a foreigner, an outsider, an “illegal.” It was nothing new. I’ve been racially profiled before. As a woman of Mexican heritage, I’ve often had to present my ID to police to prove I’m worthy of being treated like a human being.

I told this woman that as a U.S. citizen I have the same rights she enjoys. Her response astounded me. Undocumented immigrants, she said, come to this country and “kill innocent people to then leave and never be heard from again.”

I wanted to continue the conversation, to discuss her concerns in a civil manner, but she ended up walking away.

Her unwillingness to engage in a conversation that just may have prompted her to re-examine her beliefs about immigration seemed to exemplify the anti-immigrant atmosphere in Georgia. Last year, the state passed harsh legislation modeled after Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. Though Georgia’s law sparked an SPLC lawsuit and has hurt the state’s economy and reputation, state lawmakers decided to double down and push another piece of anti-immigrant legislation – SB 458 – through the legislature.

I was appalled as I watched this bill move through the legislature. Several lawmakers supporting the bill seemed perplexed by suggestions that it could cause similar problems. They couldn’t even provide concrete answers to these concerns.

It seemed they could only keep up the drumbeat that undocumented immigrants are supposedly taking university and college seats from U.S. citizens – even receiving subsidies in the process. Of course, this position requires avoiding any discussion that reflects reality.

There is no rampant flood of undocumented students taking higher education seats that belong to American children. The fact is that any student – regardless of immigration status – must meet academic criteria to be accepted into a college or university. 

As for subsidies, undocumented students must pay the out-of-state tuition rate, which is three times the cost of in-state tuition. And these students aren’t paying this higher tuition bill with financial aid; they’re already denied from receiving such aid.

At a hearing, the chancellor for the board of regents said the proposed legislation was excessive and unnecessary. Undocumented students are already banned from the state’s top five research universities.

A concerned high school teacher testified that the bill could discourage high school students from graduating if they feel there’s nothing for them after high school. The teacher pointed out what should be obvious – an educated society benefits everyone.

And yet none of it seemed to matter; the committee approved SB 458 by a 7-2 vote.

When lawmakers won’t listen to officials and others about the harmful effects of their legislation, it makes you wonder who has their attention. D.A. King, a self-proclaimed immigration expert, apparently was a source for information in drafting the bill.

King has quite the track record when it comes to immigration but he’s no “expert.” He had a hand in drafting the state’s disastrous anti-immigrant law that is now tied up in the courts. In the mid-2000s, when only a few dozen people showed up at the state capitol to protest illegal immigration, King paid homeless people to hold signs and join the protest.

Obviously, many lawmakers behind this bill – much like the woman I encountered after the committee meeting – only want to hear “facts” that reinforce their viewpoint. It’s an attitude that has helped create the anti-immigrant atmosphere here in Georgia and elsewhere.

It’s distressing, but there is hope.

During the waning days of the legislative session, groups like GUYA (Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance) continued to mobilize people to call and fax their legislators. They educated others about how legislation would create more havoc and why participation was crucial. There were people willing to listen. The ban was pulled from the bill, which ultimately died in the legislature.

During the final hours of the legislative session, I sat next to my daughter watching live video of the session. When the clock struck midnight, marking the end of the legislative session, it was a joyous moment.

Yes, xenophobia and a desire to find a scapegoat for these hard economic times will spur more anti-immigrant legislation. And there’s no shortage of lawmakers unwilling to hear other viewpoints. But there are still people unwilling to allow their state to be governed by fear.

Eva Cardenas is an SPLC outreach paralegal in Georgia.