Opinion: Congress should keep fighting to support immigration reform in spending plan

December 15, 2021 6:56 pm

Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, says protecting the state’s DACA recipients would provide fuel for Georgia’s economy. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s an important time of year, as our congressional leaders work to pass a budget that will build back our nation’s economy and workforce following the devastating effects of COVID-19.

The power lies with Congress to determine funding priorities for the upcoming year through the budget reconciliation process that will ensure we remain competitive and recover. As the Senate considers the House-passed bill known as the Build Back Better Act, I encourage Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to ensure that the final package will support local jobs while making sure that opportunities to improve Georgians’ quality of life are accessible to everyone, especially immigrants who live, work, and go to school in this great state but are stuck in legal limbo due to decades of congressional inaction on immigration reform.

The House-passed Build Back Better Act includes necessary provisions that will transform the lives of about 7 million undocumented immigrants, all of whom have lived, worked, and contributed to our nation for an average of 20 years. By focusing on keeping families across the country together, the current plan would allow for those eligible to apply for long-term work permits as well as deportation protections. It would also help keep all our families and communities safe by expanding access to life-saving health care and would allow for those who have been separated from their loved ones to travel abroad to see their family.

If signed into law, this would be a victory for immigrants and the economy, and would provide immigration relief to the largest population in history.

While it is imperative to pass immigration relief now, leaders in Congress should use it as a stepping stone for passing citizenship for all. After all, an overwhelming majority of voters see the clear benefits of immigration by supporting a pathway to citizenship as part of immigration reform and without a permanent, long-term legislative solution for all, our communities, labor forces, and economies will continue to be saddled with the costs.

Today, Georgia is home to more than 352,000 undocumented immigrants. Despite nine years of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children by offering eligible individuals temporary work and study auhorizations, recipients are facing potential consequences after a federal judge in Texas decided to move forward with terminating the program. This could impact an estimated 21,000 DACA recipients in Georgia and prevent thousands of other Dreamers who came to the U.S. as children from one day applying to receive temporary deportation protections under the program.

In addition to Dreamers, 20,000 Temporary Protected Status holders and 180,000 essential immigrant workers in Georgia – such as farmhands and health care employees – could contribute fully to society through earned legal status, which is especially important as we work to rebuild from COVID-19. Further, if these undocumented immigrants are able to become U.S. citizens, Georgia’s economy could see a $4 billion increase. All the more reason why Congress must prioritize a pathway to citizenship for all.

Outside of their proven contributions, our nation’s leaders have a moral obligation to establish a civil and just immigration system that encourages family unity and individual success. The current practice of family separation and arbitrary limitations put on immigrants through temporary status initiatives without any hope to obtain earned legal status does not reflect the values of the United States.

Congress should do what is right and pass immigration relief as part of Build Back Better Act now while leaving no stone unturned to establish a fair and just foundation that increases opportunities for all to succeed, especially the immigrant community that is an economic multiplier. Today, nearly one in ten Georgian is an immigrant, filling our workforce and society with diversity and international talent. Across the Peach State, more than 1 million Georgia immigrants pay billions a year in taxes and are employed in key industries such as construction, hospitality, and agriculture.

I thank our Georgia leaders, including Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Suwannee Democrat, and Rep. Lucy McBath, a Marietta Democrat, for supporting this bill through the House and encourage all of our representatives in Congress to continue exploring all avenues to provide undocumented immigrants with a pathway to earned legal status, both through the Build Back Better Act and individual legislation. Now is the time for real leadership to get transformative immigration relief across the finish line. It’s the right thing to do for Georgia and for the future of our country.

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Jerry Gonzalez
Jerry Gonzalez

Jerry Gonzalez is the founding and current CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund. GALEO was founded in 2003 and is a 501(c)(6) statewide nonprofit and non-partisan organization that aims to increase civic engagement and leadership development of the Latino/Hispanic community across Georgia.