Democratic Candidates Debate Immigration in East Cobb

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(APN) EAST COBB COUNTY – Immigration was discussed by numerous Democratic candidates running for office at a forum held last week, May 4, 2006, by the East Cobb County Democratic Alliance. Each of the candidates who spoke on immigration were from East Cobb.

The East Cobb County Democrats are continuing to move and shake things up in their somewhat conservative, financially prosperous district. They were featured in a recent piece in The Sunday Paper, have been holding monthly issue forums, and have succeeded in recruiting so many more candidates from their area than during the last election season.

Immigration is a complex issue, Jerry Gonzales, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), said. Gonzales made a presentation and took questions. After this, each of the candidates made brief speeches.

The Democratic candidates took a range of positions on the issue, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

“The federal government has allowed this issue to spiral out of control,” Gonzalez said.

HR 4437, the bill passed by the US House in December 2005, is a “draconian measure” which criminalizes not only undocumented immigrants but anyone providing them services, Gonzales said.

Darryl D. Wilson, running for the 45th Georgia House District, wants immigrants to be subject to a legal process, he said.

Upholding our laws is important, and undocumented immigrants should not sidestep what others have to do to be here legally, Wilson said.

Zachary Smith, candidate in the 41st Georgia House District, agreed that our country has a rule of law, “but the law is broken.”

Smith, 23, said “the work ethic among many young Americans is bankrupt.” Smith works in landscaping and called his Latino co-workers “my friends and family.”

RuthE Levy, previously interviewed by Atlanta Progressive News (Georgia Candidate’s Car Vandalized), is the Georgia Senate Candidate in the 32nd district.

Levy said immigration is an emotional issue and, “wished that it were not so. We need to be educated as to the facts about our undocumented neighbors.”

But what Levy hears is fear – fear they will take out jobs, fear that we are being taxed to support their health care. Immigrants are not the enemy, Levy said.

Dr. Beth Farokhi, an educator, is running for Cobb County School Board Post 6. “Diversity is a strength,” Dr. Farokhi said. She cited one elementary school where 34 different languages were spoken. Farokhi also discussed education, saying schools need to have the resources they need.

The debate is not about whether our policies are broken, but about how to fix them, Gonzales said.

Gonzalez offered three considerations necessary to resolve this issue.

First, our borders must be secure and we should “approach this in a robust way” which guarantees our national safety, Gonzales said.

Second, we are economically dependent on immigrant labor, Gonzales said.

“Studies have shown that Americans will not pick onions and pluck chickens,” Gonzales said.

However, an audience member pointed out the issue is really the poverty wages being paid to immigrants for these jobs, which the immigrants are prepared to accept.

Atlanta Progressive News has not seen and thus cannot confirm any study stating Americans will not pick onions. However, perhaps if picking onions paid a living wage, like all jobs should, more Americans would want to.

Plucking chickens, on the other hand, it is hard to see how anyone would want to do, in the disastrous conditions which abound for both chickens and workers in today’s corporate conglomerate farms.

The number of workers needed to maintain our growing economy cannot be provided by current law as only 10,000 visas are provided annually for skilled labor, Gonzales said. Anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 laborers are currently entering our country annually, Gonzales said.

Certain segments of our economy are viable only if both employers and workers break the law. With “baby boomers” retiring, we are increasingly dependent on young immigrant, he said.

Thirdly, the dignity and human rights of all must be respected, Gonzales said.

The McCain-Kennedy legislation comes closest to these goals by providing a path to citizenship to those who want it, Gonzales said.

“Not everyone does. Some would like to work here, build a nest egg, and go back to their countries, but we have raised the stakes too high for them to return. To do so means another dangerous border-crossing, sometimes in the back of an 18-wheeler in 110º Texas or Arizona heat,” Gonzalez explained.

Gonzalez called the Georgia legislation (SB529) just signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, “smoke and mirrors.”

“It is so watered down that it won’t solve any problems. All it has done is create fear in the Latino community,” Gonzales said.

Gonzalez received a phone call from a frightened 13-year-old asking if her family needed to move to North Carolina or Tennessee, two of our border states with a realistic assessment of their dependence on immigrant labor. Some families have already begun withdrawing cash from their bank accounts in order to facilitate a quick flight from Georgia, Gonzales said.

Since undocumented immigrants already have federal guarantees to a K-12 education and access to emergency room care, SB 529 is only a “wedge that divides us,” Gonzales said.

“There are 70,000 Latino voters in this state,” Gonzalez continued.

“Considering that Zell Miller won the governorship by less than 35,000 votes, Clinton won Georgia in 1992 by 20,000 and lost it in 1996 by 14,000, Latino voters along with their family and friends could play a crucial role in upcoming elections.”

Gonzalez noted that immigration reform is a bi-partisan issue. Republican and Democratic Georgia legislators wanted children barred from even an elementary school education. Both Georgia Democrats voted for HR 4437.

During the question and answer period, a woman identifying herself as a “yellowed-bellied Democrat” challenged Gonzalez for referring to immigrants as “undocumented” rather that “illegal.”

Gonzalez elegantly defended our common humanity by declaring that a person can never be “illegal,” they can only do illegal acts. The question was put to the audience if anyone considered him or herself as “illegal” for driving over the speed limit.

A physician who worked in Gwinnett stated that, whereas Latinos were 15-20% of the Gwinnett population, 66% of babies born in that county have Latino mothers – to which another member of the audience responded, “So what?”

The doctor said that 90% of them were on welfare. Gonzalez rebutted that was not possible since undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive social benefits.

The next question referred to a broken system that prevents employers from withholding taxes from undocumented workers.

Gonzalez answered most workers use false Social Security numbers to obtain jobs meaning that money is withheld and remitted to Social Security, but can never be claimed. Currently, $7 billion annually is going into the system freed of any future obligation to pay benefits.

In response to a follow-up question by another audience member, Gonzales said several years ago the government tried to crack down on the use of phony numbers. Businesses were advised of any worker whose name and number did not match up. The effort was abandoned when the businesses complained they couldn’t afford the loss of so many employees.

Gonzalez explained while some companies exploit their workers, others acknowledge they can’t stay in business without them. Georgia agribusiness is dependent on immigrant labor and the legal system does not provide for the necessary number of workers, he said. US Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) is working on an “Ag-Jobs Act” that will facilitate the legal entry of field workers.

When the issue was raised that we are looking at immigration too narrowly, a lively discussion ensued.

Gonzalez agreed that globalization, free-trade agreements, and bad economies created by bad governments were the root causes. The US government, ultimately, has to address the economic prosperity of the entire hemisphere in order to curtail immigration.

Gonzalez summed up by saying that Latino voters, like all Georgians, want a solution, not an election-year ploy. They want immigrants to have a path to citizenship, reunification of families, border security, and enforcement of labor laws.

“At-issue” forums are held by the East Cobb Democratic Alliance monthly in order to educate voters about current legislative topics. Upcoming topics are public education, health care, reproductive freedom and choices of life and death, the trillion dollar debt, and civil rights – equal protection under the law. Visit www.eastcobbdems.com for more information.

About the author:

Betty Clermont is a Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at betty@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.

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