Immigration, an issue getting national attention in the midterm elections, sparked at least one contentious exchange between the candidates in Georgia’s 12th Congressional District, Republican incumbent Rep. Rick Allen and Democratic challenger the Rev. Francys Johnson.
When the Statesboro Herald hosted the only local forum between Johnson and Allen last week, one question was, “What will you do to protect hardworking immigrants, many of whom drive the agricultural economy of the 12th Congressional District?”
After saying he appreciated the question, Johnson said, “It begins with re-examining the ethos of this country,” and took a verbal jab at Allen as someone “who seems to think if it makes money, then it’s right.”
“Money doesn’t always mean that something’s right, and it’s wrong to treat this new wave of new Americans any differently than we’ve treated those who’ve come to these shores from the very beginning, those who were running from religious persecution in England, and those who came in other waves, leaving famine behind in Ireland, fleeing from fascism in Italy,” Johnson said.
If America is no longer welcoming to immigrants, it should take down the Statue of Liberty with its message welcoming the tired, the poor and those yearning for freedom, he continued.
“We might have all come here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got to pass comprehensive immigration reform. That means giving a pathway to citizenship to those who are languishing in the shadows right now, they’re paying taxes – and he’s going to tell you in just a moment how they’ve committed so many crimes – I know they’re good, hardworking folks who just want a chance.”
In fact, during the two-candidate forum in Ogeechee Technical College’s auditorium, Allen never referred to immigrants as committing crimes. But that has been a theme at times of President Donald Trump, a Republican whom Allen mostly supports.
On this and some other topics, the 12th District candidates attributed things to each other, sometimes directly and sometimes by reference to political party, that the other candidate didn’t actually say. They agreed that “immigration reform” is needed, but presented very different ideas of what that would be.
“You can’t get to comprehensive immigration reform when the president is willing to put children in cages as a way to gin up votes in an election year, and I’m sorry that I’m not smiling, but this is tough, because these are real people, these are real families that are being pulled apart,” Johnson said.
The same question went to Allen.
“Yes, we have a broken immigration system,” he said. “It’s been broken for some time. Nobody’s done anything about it. The Democrats had what is called a supermajority back in 2008. They didn’t do a thing about it.”
This year, with Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress, an immigration bill did come to a vote. It included beefed-up border security and left intact a general requirement that someone who has been in the United States illegally apply for legal status from outside the U.S. and stay out for as long as 10 years before re-entry.
But the bill would have waived that requirement for young immigrants who arrived as children, keeping alive to some extent the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program the Trump administration previously tried to end.
“We voted on an immigration bill. I voted on one,” Allen said. “We had 193 votes in the House, and not one Democrat voted for that immigration bill. This would fix the problems that we currently have. It would give our farmers the labor they need, it would deal with the DACA people who are here, and really just dealing with the 10-year step-back rule.”
It is true, as Allen said, that 193 Republicans and no Democrats voted for the legislation in June. But 41 Republicans also voted against it, and the bill failed 231-193.
“We also went to merit-based immigration versus chain migration,” Allen said, continuing to describe the failed bill. “We had…”
“I resent that phrase, chain migration,” Johnson interjected. “My people were brought to this country in chains, and you will not sit here on this stage and insult people in that manner. I resent that. That’s a racist statement.”
Some rumblings and comments were heard from the crowd.
“It’s basically those who come here and get citizenship and then bring their …,” Allen began again.
“Like the first lady’s family,” Johnson said.
“They bring their parents, they bring their brothers and their sisters to the country,” Allen continued. “You know, again, that was part of the legislation that I supported. It also helped our farmers get the labor they need, and I was really disappointed that we didn’t get that done. We have got to continue to work on that, because our immigration laws are broken.”
The phase “chain migration” has been used for decades to refer to immigration from specific places in one country to locales in another. Trump, Allen and other Republicans use it to refer to existing laws that let citizens, and to a more limited extent people with legal permanent resident status, sponsor relatives as new immigrants.
A number of leading Democrats and other critics of the administration’s stance have said that the phrase “chain migration” is offensive in this context. They prefer the term “family-based immigration” for the policy. But “chain migration” has nothing to do with slave ships or literal chains.
Johnson did not elaborate on his comment about the first lady, but Melania Trump’s parents, immigrants from Slovenia, became U.S. citizens in August.
President Trump has said he wants to replace “chain immigration” with a “merit-based” focus favoring immigrants with needed skills and experience.
“But I can tell you this, the Democratic Party wants open borders,” Allen said. “They want to allow anybody and everybody to come in here.”
Johnson didn’t say he wants open borders, and few if any Democratic candidates actually say that.
Open borders would be a bad idea for a number of reasons, Allen said.
“Again, how many people do you want to let in? I mean, think about what that would do to our economy, what that would do to what we’re trying to preserve here,” he said. “Again, there’s probably 150 million people that want to come to this country, and I’m sure that in a merit-based work program folks would want to come here and work, but they want to go back home after that.”