In a room with less than 10 attendees, four major names in the Athens activist scenes discussed local immigration issues and potential solutions at the Amnesty International Legislative Panel on Thursday night.
The University of Georgia chapter of Amnesty International is a small piece in a larger effort to promote awareness and activism on behalf of human rights campaigns and issues around the world. UGA’s group focuses on local human rights as well as establishing a local tie to national issues.
President of the chapter, Sabina Ashurova, said panelists for these bi-monthly meetings are chosen based on what topics organization members express the most interest in. Previous topics have included sex trafficking, social security and gun violence.
Regardless of the topic, Ashurova said she tried to provide a space absent from the polarized world of politics.
Beto Mendoza from the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition, District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link, former State Representative for Georgia House District 117 Deborah Gonzalez and immigration lawyer Sujata Winfield composed the panel. Each provided insight based on his or her own experiences with immigration legislation and topics at the local and state level.
The members of the panel were asked what they see as the most pressing issue regarding immigration and what initiatives are in the works to address them. Mendoza spoke about what he believes to be an overall denial of human rights against immigrants while Link and Gonzalez placed emphasis on the role federal legislation has on local law enforcement.
Mendoza focused on education as a universal human right and said he thinks there should be more initiatives encouraging a comprehensive and holistic alteration of the way history is taught in the classroom. Hispanics and Latinos, he said, don’t receive enough exposure to lessons from their own culture.
“They don’t see themselves reflected in the history as we know. They don’t see their ancestors there; they don’t see their culture,” Mendoza said. “And they have questions later about who they are.”
Gonzalez spoke about her hands-on work in halting Senate Bill 452, also known as Ensuring Necessary Deportations, from passing in the House. The bill would have mandated local law enforcement agencies to notify prosecutors if they learned a person was undocumented.
From July 2017-April 2018, the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, following a request from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would hold inmates for 48 hours after their criminal charges had been processed. This allowed ICE enough time to pick up and depart any undocumented immigrants arrested by local law enforcement.
This practice ended after Sheriff Ira Edwards made the decision to do so, based on legal advice and “gaps in the current system” that prohibit the sheriff’s office from holding individuals solely because of an ICE detainer, according to comments made in light of the April 13 announcement.
Link, a self-described advocate for the protection of undocumented immigrants, emphasized that as members of the ACC community, the people “control the purse strings” of local law enforcement. She made sure to remind the audience that the Sheriff’s position will be up for reelection next year.
“I hope that folks are paying attention to where he stands on these issues and whether he’s willing to stand up to state law,” Link said. “And whether or not this community is willing to stand up to state law.”
In regards to potential actions to be taken at the local government level, Link said the newly elected members on the Mayor and Commission are “very progressive” and passionate about immigrant rights. She said that later this month, the governmental body will host a work session on criminal justice to address local questions and issues, specifically the creation of a law or parallel ordinance that would allow undocumented immigrants to live and work in their communities without a U.S. driver’s license.
All panelists agreed on one topic: the necessity for large-scale immigration legislation reform at the federal level. But the four progressive activists said the current Republican administration — specifically members following in the path of President Donald Trump and his immigration policies — represents a major roadblock for change in the near future.
“It’s being done in an indiscriminate fashion. Anybody who is apprehended for whatever reason and found to be undocumented basically is a candidate for deportation,” Winfield said. “You cannot deport 12 million people from the country in one go.”
Winfield spoke about the emotional and physical harm caused by the separation of immigrant families. In addition, she urged her audience to recognize what she feels are “discriminatory” laws and policies keeping young people from attending public universities, targeting those classified as undocumented and those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
For example, policies outlined by the Georgia Board of Regents state that only students who can prove “lawful presence” are allowed to receive in-state tuition. Students under DACA are prohibited from receiving in-state tuition from UGA in accordance with this policy, and undocumented students cannot attend the “most selective institutions” in the University System of Georgia.
“So many people don’t know that, and they don’t know the reason for those policies,” Ashurova said.
Ashurova said although there was a small audience at the session, the purpose of the organization is to provide as many people as possible with a comfortable space to discuss these types of issues, especially in a community where students are probably surrounded by undocumented immigrants each day.
“Educating people about that so that they’re more aware, and that they’re more understanding of the issues creates better citizens and people that are able to actually foster change in their communities,” Ashurova said.