Deal’s letter shows how positions have shifted on immigration

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When it comes to taking a strong stand against illegal immigration, Gov. Nathan Deal has been right there on the front lines.

When he qualified to run for governor last year, Deal called for the passage of a tough anti-immigration law similar to Arizona’s statute.

After the General Assembly passed a strict immigration control bill in this year’s legislative session, Deal promptly signed it into law.

Even when farmers blamed the new law for causing a labor shortage in Georgia’s largest industry by scaring off migrant workers, Deal was quick to defend the strict approach taken by the statute: “We should all be focused on having a legal workforce in our state, no matter what the industry that is affected by it.”

But Deal hasn’t always been this insistent on tough-minded enforcement of immigration laws.

In 1999, when he was a U.S. House member from Georgia’s 9th Congressional District, Deal was one of several congressman who signed a letter to then-president Bill Clinton asking Clinton to go easy in enforcing the immigration laws against undocumented residents.

In that letter, Deal and his House colleagues complained that “some deportations were unfair and resulted in unjustifiable hardship.”

The letter to Clinton stated:

“Cases of apparent extreme hardship have caused concern. Some cases may involve removal proceedings against legal permanent residents who came to the United States when they were very young and many years ago committed a single crime at the lower end of the ‘aggravated felony’ spectrum, but have been law-abiding ever since, obtained and held jobs and remained self-sufficient, and started families in the United States. Although they did not become United States citizens, immediate family members are citizens.”

Deal’s letter added, “If the facts substantiate the presentations that have been made to us, we must ask why the INS pursued removal in such cases when so many other more serious cases existed.”

That is a softer stance than the position Deal has now staked out on the immigration issue.

Deal’s media spokesman, Brian Robinson, acknowledged the governor’s shift in position and said this about the letter to Clinton:

The 1999 letter shows the governor’s compassion for those caught up in terrible circumstances. But conditions in our nation (and state) have changed dramatically since 1999. For starters, Sept. 11 changed how we view the threat of open borders.

Also, the number of illegal immigrants in our state has absolutely exploded, stressing our state’s social services greatly. We no longer face a manageable problem that we can handle in a case by case manner. As the problem has grown increasingly worse, the governor — and many other Georgians — has toughened his position. The governor has always taken a strong position against illegal immigration, and the escalation of the problem has demanded stronger responses.

That 1999 letter to Clinton was also signed by a Republican congressman from Texas, Rep. Lamar Smith. Smith is now, 12 years later, the sponsor of a bill that would prohibit immigration officials in the Obama administration from using any discretion at all in the enforcement of immigration laws, even though Smith asked Clinton to use discretion in deciding whether to deport immigrants.

Other Georgia politicians have also made significant changes in their position on the immigration issue over the past decade, a period when the Republican Party base swerved to the right. One of the most notable shifts was made by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who at one time took a more humane stance towards immigrants hired to work on Georgia farms.

In 1998, a group of federal agents raided the onion fields around Vidalia and arrested 21 migrant farm workers who did not have the required documents. The immigration agents planned to round up several hundred additional farm workers, but the effort was called off after Chambliss and other Republican congressmen from Georgia complained to the Clinton administration.

Chambliss, who was then a member of the U.S. House, charged that immigration officials had used “bullying tactics” when they swept in to arrest the farm workers. Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell also criticized the federal action against ”honest farmers who are simply trying to get their products from the field to the marketplace.”

In 2007, Chambliss signed on early as a sponsor of an immigration reform bill proposed by President George W. Bush and supported by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy that would have provided 12 million undocumented workers a path to legal status. Immigrants would be offered a temporary residency permit while they applied for a visa that would allow them to live and work in the U.S.

Chambliss caught a lot of criticism from Republicans for sponsoring that immigration bill, and when he appeared before the state Republican Party convention in May of that year, he was angrily booed by party delegates.

Chambliss quickly dropped his support of Bush’s immigration reform bill, which went nowhere, and from that point on he has sternly opposed all proposals to make it easier for immigrant workers to come to the U.S.

Last December, Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson helped Republicans block a Senate vote on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that would have provided a pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.

© 2011 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Georgia farmers , immigration , Lamar Smith , migrant workers , Nathan Deal , Saxby Chambliss