Three years ago, I led efforts to bring together leaders from civil society and the public and private sectors to identify ways in which to expand the integration of immigrants and Latinos overall in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Today, July 1, marks a rather unceremonious change in how Georgia’s politicians have caved into anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011—HB 87—is likely to not only drive out immigrants, but also restrain current and new investment and jobs.
Back in 2008, the working group—comprised of both leaders from Atlanta and beyond— recognized the importance of the fast-growing Hispanic market and noted how integration of this constituency into the workforce is good for business. Michael Thurmond, the then-Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor, opened our meeting with a discussion of the contributions of Hispanics to Georgia’s economy both as laborers and as consumers. Hispanics, he said, represented $1.8 billion in buying power in Georgia.
Beginning with the construction boom around the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, immigrants have increasingly become a source for Georgian economic prosperity. These new laborers helped to build Centennial Olympic Park and other critical infrastructure for Georgia to host the Olympics and leap onto the world stage. Following the Olympics, between 1996 and 2004, an average of 71,414 homes were built in Georgia, as the Atlanta metropolitan area became a hub for real estate and construction.
And, as Americas Society documented a few years ago in our white paper on Atlanta, although immigrants’ contributions are generally recognized, “a slowdown in economic growth and rising unemployment can shift public attitudes toward immigrants and generate concerns about their costs and the transformation of communities. This leads to social division and an unwelcome environment for Hispanics, including those who are legal residents or citizens.” Regrettably, this is exactly what has happened with today’s enactment of the anti-immigrant HB 87.
The courts have thankfully stepped in to block two of its more draconian provisions. One would allow police to investigate the immigration status of suspects, and another would punish people who knowingly transport or harbor undocumented immigrants. But still, as of today, four provisions go into effect that focus on prison terms and oversight of government hiring practices.
Yes, the bill is aimed at undocumented immigrants, but the plain truth is: bills like this and the political climate they represent affect U.S. citizens of Hispanic ancestry. In fact, a 2010 Pew Hispanic Center survey reports that 61 percent of Latinos say discrimination is a “major problem” that affects their socioeconomic mobility.
That’s tough news for Georgia’s short-sighted political leaders. In 2007, Georgia was among the ten states with the largest Hispanic media markets, totaling about $14 billion. It was also among the ten states with the highest rate of Hispanic buying power growth over a period of 17 years (1990 to 2007), with a growth of 924 percent. And just a few years ago, most Georgians recognized this. In 2006, the Peach State Poll reported that 52 percent of Georgians believed that immigrants take jobs that nobody else wants, compared with 29 percent who believed that immigrants take jobs from native workers.
I spoke with Norberto Sanchez, the CEO of Norsan Group, and Alfonso Villarreal, its COO, to get their reaction to today’s enactment of HB 87. Both have been long-standing partners in our Hispanic Integration and Immigration work, and are business leaders in the Atlanta area. Their reaction: “Our southeast region is still suffering through a difficult economic time right now, and I am concerned that recent moves by the state government with respect to immigration may only make things worse in terms of economics as well as community relations. Especially, given the large Hispanic population and business community in this state, I worry that local immigration enforcement will give the state a reputation as being unwelcoming to Hispanics and create divisions in the community. Such developments may make it more difficult to attract headquarters and operations of large multinational companies to Georgia, reversing the state’s significant progress as a business hub.”
I couldn’t agree more. As guitarist Carlos Santana told a national television audience at Turner Field for the mid-May MLB Civil Rights Game: “Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
*Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AQ Online and director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.