Perhaps facts and figures can’t compete with raw emotion when it comes to fixing what Democrats and Republicans agree is a broken national immigration system.
“What motivates people to care about this issue is our hearts, not our minds,” said Dr. Marie Marquardt, a scholar-in-residence at Emory University in Atlanta who has published academic work on the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants. “I believe in the power of stories to change hearts.”
To that end, Marquardt published a novel last fall set in a fictional North Georgia city that bears a stunning resemblance to Gainesville.
That’s because it is meant to.
Marquardt spoke about her book, “Dream Things True,” to students at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville on Wednesday, some of whom are immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program begun in 2012.
DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who came to America before 16 years of age and prior to June 2007 to receive two-year work permits and a reprieve from deportation, subject to renewal. It does not provide a path to citizenship.
About 84,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia were eligible for protection under DACA at its inception, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The Georgia legislature, partly in response to this program and the federal government’s inaction on immigration reform, considered three significant bills this year: restrictions on driver’s licenses for DACA recipients, an amendment to the state Constitution to declare English the official language, and prohibitions on non-citizens serving on governing or agency boards.
“Everybody’s getting fed up with the federal government not doing nothing,” Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said.
Opponents say the bills are discriminatory.
Though none of these bills passed out of both the House and Senate this year, lawmakers and advocates on both sides expect they will come up for debate again in 2017.
“People do not want to … cause a lot of problems” in an election year, Dunahoo said of the delay, adding that he supported all three bills as a way to protect American culture and taxpayers from the influence and demands of “illegal” immigrants.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he also believes these bills will come up for a likely vote next year.
“We will work to educate legislators on why they are not good for our state,” Gonzalez said.
Marquardt said she wrote her novel — a kind of Romeo and Juliet love story about an undocumented high school girl and the American boy, whose uncle is a U.S. Senator taking credit for immigration raids and deportations, that she falls in love with – as a way to engage the public in a discussion beyond the arguments of immigration reform buttressed only by numbers and statistics.
The numbers are stark, however.
There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, according to the Pew Research Center, and an estimated 393,000 in Georgia.
More than 15 percent of residents in Hall County are now foreign-born, and 25 percent in Gainesville, according to 2014 U.S. Census numbers.
Gainesville, where an estimated 42 percent of the population is Latino or Hispanic, is home to many first- and second-generation immigrants.
And Latinos owned about 10 percent of all businesses in Gainesville in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, and about 7 percent across Hall County.
In fact, stories about the availability of jobs in the poultry plants and the built-in Spanish-speaking community in Gainesville seem almost carried on the wind.
One woman, who declined to give her name, told The Times last fall that she heard about Gainesville while living in Los Angeles. Word was that Latinos could make a good home here.
Marquardt’s book reading Wednesday was the latest installment in the I AM DACA series at UNG, which Nataly Morales Villa, one of the key organizers, said is about educating, raising awareness and building advocates for immigrant students all over Georgia.
For example, Sayra Lopez, 21, a DACA recipient who can work, study and live here while being exempt from deportation, said a state rule that disallows DACA students from receiving in-state tuition has hurt her educational prospects.
A Georgia Supreme Court ruling in February barred DACA recipients from suing the state university system board of regents over the matter.
In-state tuition at UNG for 12 credit hours on an associate degree track costs about $1,225 versus $4,850 for out-of-state tuition.
The same number of credit hours on a bachelor’s degree path will cost $2,140 for in-state tuition and $7,557 for out-of-state.
“I didn’t have that kind of money unless I sell drugs in the street,” Lopez said as a joke to those in attendance Wednesday.
She now attends Freedom University Georgia in Atlanta, which provides free college-level education to undocumented youth who cannot afford to attend Georgia public universities.
Meanwhile, Marquardt said her novel is meant as an antidote to the fear she believes is crippling chances for immigration reform. It is based on her firsthand experiences with the people and places most impacted by U.S. immigration policies, bolstered by years of academic research, advocacy and personal relationships.
Marquardt said that if reform is not soon accomplished that opens the door to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants, her book could become the prescient dystopian nightmare that the online retailer Amazon mistakenly categorizes it as.
“Let’s prove Amazon wrong,” she said.