In the immigration space, the significance of June has grown. We have World Refugee Day which is celebrated internationally on June 20th as a way to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifice many refugees have to make when deciding to flee their countries and start their lives over in a new place. We also have the relatively new Immigrant Heritage Month which was first celebrated in 2014 and is meant to recognize and honor immigrants in the United States. June is a special time where we can commemorate pieces of our heritage and admire the accomplishments of simply being able to survive in an unknown place.
The United States has long been a destination for those fleeing their country due to persecution. The Refugee Act of 1980 raised the cap number of admissions and provided a uniform process to gain status. Since then, our caps have fluctuated depending on the current president. During the Trump Administration, the cap was set at an all-time low of 18,000 for fiscal year 2020 during which only 11,800 refugees were able to be resettled in the US. For fiscal year 2022, the cap had risen to 125,000; however, only refugees have been able to reach the US. This was largely due to the Trump Administration’s dismantling of the funding infrastructure that resettlement agencies depend on keep their doors open
Georgia has resettled refugees for over forty years and is one of the top ten states that resettles refugees nationally. Throughout the years Georgia has been home to some 40,000 refugees. The city of Clarkston has gained notoriety for being known as the “Ellis Island of the South” and for having the most diverse square mile in the United States. As of May 2022, Georgia has received a little over 400 refugees for fiscal year 2022; ultimately, fiscal year 2022 is likely to be different from fiscal year 2021, when the total number of refugee arrivals.
However, when thinking of welcoming, Georgia is not the first state to come to mind. Georgia, although open to refugees, does not do much to ensure their success once they arrive. The state of Georgia currently does not spend any state dollars to fund programs aimed at helping refugees. Anything related to refugee services relies primarily on federal funding. The local network of refugee service agencies is forced to stretch these federal dollars to provide services like English classes, job placement and resettlement. Georgia is unlike California, Washington and New York, where they provide additional state funding for programs that not only guide refugees but also provide resources for resettlement agencies.
In August of 2021, Gov. Kemp came out in favor of taking in Afghan refugees who were fleeing Taliban rule. This proclamation was not accompanied with resources, and the following legislative session proved that issues affecting the refugee and immigrant community are afterthoughts in Georgia.
There is immigrant representation all around us, yet we continue to leave immigrant issues on the backburner. Immigrants are over-represented in Georgia’s workforce, making up 14 percent of workers, primarily in industries like agriculture; forestry; fishing and hunting; mining and construction. A vast majority of immigrants in Georgia have lived in the United States for over ten years, with 72.3 percent having arrived before 2010. Also, 58.8 percent of the undocumented population in Georgia have lived in the United States for over ten years. In 2018, contributions to the state from immigrants totaled $3.5 billion in state and local taxes in 2018. In that same year, undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients contributed a combined $416.6 million in state and local taxes. Immigrants give so much of themselves to this state, and Georgia continues to give immigrants nothing in return.
In this legislative session, Georgia had an opportunity to provide in-state tuition for newly arriving refugees through HB 932 and to provide language access as well as cultural competency through non-committal provisions in HB 1013, the mental health parity bill, that aimed to help those with limited access equitable healthcare. Both measures, which had tremendous support from advocates and legislators, failed. In-state tuition only received a committee hearing, and language access was largely out of HB 1013’s final version. The failure of these policy proposals only serves as a reminder that Georgia is not as welcoming as we claim to be.
Nationally, we have Title 42 continuing to keep people, even those seeking asylum, out of the country under the guise of COVID-19 concerns. Yet, a negative COVID-19 test is no longer required to enter the United States. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) just had its 10-year anniversary since its enactment, and we are nowhere near providing a permanent immigration solution for recipients.
If Georgia truly wants to be welcoming, there are simple policy solutions that can be enacted here at home that would provide significant relief to our refugee and immigrant households. For starters, Georgia can lower the barriers to higher education by allowing newly arriving refugees and DACA recipients to qualify for in-state tuition. Georgia could also pass legislation to allow the undocumented community to be able to access a so they can drive and not have to worry about deportation. And finally, Georgia could make an effort to provide language access and cultural competency when it comes to state services, so all Georgians can equitably access services and programs.
People come to this country for various reasons. Some know exactly where they are going, some are lucky enough to have family waiting for them, and others are just trying to find a place where they can survive. Immigration can look different depending on who you are and where you come from; however, there is something inspiring in putting your faith in a country you have never visited before and making it your home—betting not only on yourself but also on the hope that a life can be made there. Thousands of people have decided to make Georgia their home, and still, they are treated like second-class citizens. Georgia can and must do better to make sure that all Georgians have an opportunity to thrive.