Amid a tense political climate surrounding immigration, a conservative north Georgia lawmaker offered glowing words about his Latino constituents during an event Tuesday in Atlanta celebrating an immigrant-rights and prison reform lobbying group.
Speaking at a lunch at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, state Sen. Chuck Payne (R-Dalton) touted the diverse makeup of the 54th District he represents. Payne estimated his district is 42% Latino. He said many of the Latinos living in the district immigrated 25 years ago and “simply want a better life not only for themselves, but for their children and their grandchildren.”
“The people that I represent are honest, they’re hard-working, seeking to realize the American dream,” said Payne, who quoted Leviticus midway through his speech as well as former President Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Biblical “shining city upon a hill” in his 1989 farewell speech.
The lunch Payne attended marked the two-year anniversary of FWD.us opening its Atlanta office. The lobbying group advocates for prison reform, immigrant asylum and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals federal policy. The senator described his work with the group as “a moral imperative and a political obligation to my constituents and the health of our country and economy.”
Speaking with the Georgia Recorder after the lunch, Payne said he views any political push to remove millions of undocumented persons from the country as impractical. A better approach, he said, is to wait for federal legislators to finally resolve immigration reform and establish firm policy on deferred-action and asylum policy.
“From blue jeans to search engines and rocket ships, immigrants are responsible for building iconic American companies like Levi Strauss, like Google and like SpaceX,” Payne said. “Companies that capture our imagination and create good-paying jobs.”
Payne’s views on immigration run counter to those of more hardline Republicans who support tougher enforcement of federal immigration laws. Those hardliners hold a variety of offices in Georgia, from governor to sheriff. Payne opposed state legislation that would have forced Georgia residents who are not American citizens to obtain driver’s licenses clearly stating that they are not citizens. The measure died in committee in part due to Payne’s vote against it.
Speaking Tuesday, Payne said the requirement would have created more technical issues than the state should have to handle and likely would have been illegal. But his stance prompted criticism from a challenger vying for his 54th District seat, Scott Tidwell, who accused Payne of having “aligned with the left-wing Democrats at our state capitol on the issue of illegal immigration,” the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported. Payne defeated Tidwell by less than 3 percent of the vote last year to win the district seat spanning just east of Atlanta up to the Tennessee line.
Otherwise, Payne leans staunchly conservative. He voted last year in favor of state legislation allowing adoption agencies to deny adoptions based on religious reasons and a bill banning abortion once a heartbeat is detected.
On policy matters, Payne said laws relating to immigration should be the purview of federal lawmakers, not the Georgia General Assembly. But philosophically, Payne contends immigrants, even those who remain undocumented, are “part of the fabric now.”
“They’re part of the nation,” he said Tuesday. “They’re part of the melting pot.”