Making Progress Towards a Welcoming Georgia

This month’s Thought Leader is written by Darlene C. Lynch, Esq. Darlene is an experienced human rights advocate and lawyer. In her role as Head of External Relations for The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) in Georgia, she advocates for the rights of refugees and immigrants in the state, including the great number who have endured torture and persecution. She helps lead advocacy for Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies and is the founder and chair of the Coalition’s new Business & Immigration for Georgia (BIG) Partnership. She also co-chairs a new advocacy coalition as part of the Georgia Immigration Collaborative associated with the State Bar. Darlene has taught law at Harvard, Boston University and Emory Law Schools and began her career as a litigation attorney and criminal prosecutor in Massachusetts. She serves on Georgia’s State-wide Human Trafficking Taskforce, is a volunteer attorney for the Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network and a court-appointed special advocate for foster children in Dekalb County.

“It’s amazing how far we have come in two years since the Governor’s race, when one candidate drove a ‘Deportation Bus’ across Georgia and our TVs were full of anti-immigrant campaign ads!”

This is what one Georgia legislator said to me last week after Republicans and Democrats on the House Small Business Development Committee voted unanimously to pass H.R. 11, a resolution to expand economic participation and opportunity for Georgia refugees and immigrants. While H.R. 11 is just the first step in the legislative process, it is more than it seems.

The resolution would task a committee of five legislators, plus representatives from the business and immigrant communities, to take a look a look at rules and regulations around occupational licensing, in-state tuition, vocational training, and small business development; to travel the state and listen to impacted Georgians; and to put together a list of recommended reforms.

What is amazing about H.R. 11 is that it drew a unanimous, bipartisan “yes” vote in committee. Georgia representatives came together across party lines and across the rural-metro divide to acknowledge the critical importance of Georgia refugees and immigrants to the state and to affirm that these Georgians should have the same opportunities as others to open new businesses, practice their professions, and use the skills and experience they bring to the state to engage in meaningful work. There is no guarantee that H.R. 11 will pass this year, but this bipartisan support is a hopeful sign.

The past several years have been difficult ones for refugees and immigrants across the nation. The Trump administration made clear through an endless stream of words and deeds that immigrants were not welcome here, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric poured down into our states.  In 2018, it led Georgia’s gubernatorial candidates to talk of buses (and pick-up trucks) hauling immigrants from our communities.

Sensible Georgians pushed back. The Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies’ (CRSA) annual New Americans Celebration continued to draw hundreds to the Capitol to support refugees and immigrants. The Georgia Legislature continued to endorse a bipartisan resolution to “commend the manifold contributions of immigrants to the State of Georgia.”

And Georgia’s business community spoke out, though mainly behind the scenes.

Georgia businesses have long understood that for Georgia to succeed economically, it must be a welcoming state.  Although one in ten Georgians is foreign-born, one in seven workers came to the state as a refugee or immigrant.  They form the backbone of the state’s core industries – agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, IT, hospitality and more. They own one-third of all main street businesses and employ hundreds of thousands of Georgians each year.

In 2020, we launched the Business and Immigration for Georgia (BIG) Partnership to entice business allies to come out from behind the scenes. Started as a collaboration of The Center for Victims of Torture, Amplio Recruiting and CRSA, the Partnership now has more two dozen members, all committed to “strengthening Georgia’s economy by tapping the potential of its New Americans.” We recognize that we won’t agree with our business partners on everything and that we will sometimes say things that makes the other cringe. We understand that Georgia’s new Americans are much more than the sum of their economic contributions.  But we have found common ground upon which to build.

H.R. 11 is the first piece of legislation to come out of the BIG Partnership.  We hope that it is a small but important step toward a vision of Georgia as a welcoming place, where new Americans can thrive, and where buses and trucks are used, not to run Georgians out of town, but to help them get to work.