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Hispanic Heritage Month: Georgia Edition

National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, starting on the day when many Latin American countries gained their independence from their colonial occupations. This month also encompasses other important dates like Oct. 11 (Columbus Day), recognized as Día de la Raza or Indigenous Peoples Day. During this month, Americans celebrate the history, culture and contributions of Latinos and Hispanics.

According to the 2020 census, Georgia’s Latino population rose by 32% in the last decade, bringing the total population to 1.1 million. Gwinnett County in Georgia is one of the top 10 U.S. counties with the highest diversity index of the last decade. Overall, 1 in 5 people in the U.S. are Hispanic or Latino, and 4 in 5 are U.S. citizens.

The influence and power of this community was reflected in the last presidential election. According to a report by the Georgia Association for Latino Elected Officials, 53.3% of Hispanic and Latino voters turned out during the 2020 presidential election. Those voters shattered turnout records during the January runoff as compared to runoffs in previous elections. According to exit polls, “Georgia Latinos backed the Democratic ticket by a 25-point margin, making them an important part of Democrats’ winning coalition,” helping to solidify Georgia’s status as a swing state.

Over the last decade, and most recently despite a devastating pandemic and their caregiving responsibilities, Latinas are nearly twice as likely to open their own businesses, and by 2020, Hispanic spending power in the U.S. had grown to $1.9 trillion, representing the largest minority market in the country.

The Hispanic and Latino community of Georgia is well organized, and the SPLC Action Fund is proud to support its efforts to create lasting change in the state. For example, we have organized to prevent all anti-immigrant legislation from advancing in the Georgia General Assembly for the past four legislative cycles.

2018 Families Belong Together Rally

One of our favorite moments of the 2021 legislative session came when Republicans took time to destroy the racist arguments made by an anti-immigrant hate group trying to advance a hateful bill.

HB 228 would have required that the driver’s licenses of Georgians who are not U.S. citizens include language saying they are not citizens and could not use this document to vote. This would not add any “security” measures against potential fraud – and in fact would create avenues for discrimination and profiling against immigrants in Georgia.

Democrats on the committee cited the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extremist file on D.A. King, who the bill’s author brought in as an “expert” on this subject. King, leader of the anti-immigrant hate group the Dustin Inman Society, and the bill’s author could not answer simple questions from the committee and were asked to go “do their homework.”

Immigrant justice advocates, including the SPLC Action Fund, didn’t have a chance to testify during this hearing because the GOP did such a thorough job of dismantling its own party’s bill and ending the committee hearing quickly that our opposition was not necessary.

Allied organizations like Project South and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, have worked for decades to uncover horrific human rights violations at Georgia’s four immigration detention centers. The Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia, came under the national spotlight last year when a nurse blew the whistle against a gynecologist, later identified as Mahendra Amin, accused of subjecting women detained there to invasive and medically unnecessary procedures without their consent.

This incident led to federal litigation, congressional hearings and a national outcry validating the pleas by advocates and immigrants to shut down these jails. The SPLC worked with allies to assist the women in filing medical grievances with the Georgia Composite Medical Board and a habeas petition in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia to file for the release of medically vulnerable people in the facility.

This summer, the federal government transferred the remaining immigrants from ICDC and announced that it would not be sending new immigrants to the jail, effectively shutting down the facility.

Georgia’s Latino and immigrant communities have also changed the political landscape of this state. There are new sheriffs in Gwinnett and Cobb counties who were elected with the support of these communities in part because they pledged to end their participation in the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to partner with ICE. District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez made history as the first Latina elected district attorney in Georgia.

As we head into a special redistricting session and a new legislative session in January, politicians may want to think twice about targeting or scapegoating Georgia’s Hispanic and Latino communities. They would do well to understand the power and influence of these communities and their ability to outmaneuver and outorganize their opposition. As a Latina, I’m part of this community, and this is our home. So, I look forward to continuing to work closely with our allies and ensure that Georgia’s elected officials are held accountable to all communities and that the Peach State remains a welcoming place for all.

Isabel Otero is Georgia policy director for the SPLC Action Fund.

The photos above were taken at the #FamiliesBelongTogether rally in July 2018. The rally was organized in response to the release of images showing the Trump administration’s caging of  immigrant children. (Credit: Rafael Otero)