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Editorial: Candidate’s bus stunt an insult to Gainesville, immigrants and truth
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State Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, walks past his campaign’s “Deportation Bus” Wednesday, May 16, 2018, following his sudden departure from his campaign office on Monroe Drive. Williams and the bus left his office as protesters gathered along the road. - photo by Scott Rogers

In a political era chock full o’ nuts, this year’s governor’s race is going off the rails on a crazy train.

The lunacy rolled into town Wednesday, May 16, in what the Michael Williams gubernatorial campaign circus called “the Deportation Bus.”

The Republican state senator from Cumming decorated a bus with anti-immigrant slogans vowing to “fill this bus with illegals and send them back where they came from” by visiting the state’s “dangerous sanctuary cities.” Among signs decorating the bus were those reading “Follow me to Mexico” and “murderers, rapists, kidnappers and child molesters and other criminals on board.” We assume that didn’t refer to the campaign staff and supporters riding along, but rather the imaginary “dangerous” immigrants he wasn’t taking across any borders — doing so would be illegal, of course, since he’s not a federal agent empowered to take such action.

Instead of rumbling off to Mexico, the D-Bus started its xenophobic route in Gainesville, greeted by a few dozen peaceful protesters, then headed for Clarkston and Decatur. The campaign claimed violent protests by “ANTIFA protesters and radical liberals” led to it scrubbing a planned visit to Athens, though no proof has been shown that happened.

Such accusations fit a pattern; while here, Williams also concocted stories of protesters threatening to throw paint on his hatemobile and that deputies ran off several MS-13 gang members, none of which actually occurred.

Clearly, riling up emotions was his intent, perhaps hoping true acts of violence would make his point that immigrants and their supporters are all dangerous thugs to be feared. Those who didn’t take that bait should be applauded for their restraint.

It’s not the first oddball act by Williams, who fancies himself as the uber-Donald Trump. Last year he posed for a photograph at a public event with a right-wing militia group and later offered to give away a “bump stock” that turns a semi-automatic rifle into a more deadly weapon, even as many Republicans sought to ban the devices.

It’s tempting to ignore him as one would the class cut-up using childish antics to seek attention. But he labeled Gainesville a city “turning a blind eye to criminal illegal aliens,” a thumb in the eye at the home county of GOP candidate and consensus frontrunner Casey Cagle. Hall Republican Party chairman Matt Smith called it “kind of a slap in the face” and “just a crazy statement.”

With published polls showing Williams trailing the field in single digits, his bus ploy was little more than a hail-Mary pass to stir up interest days before the primary. But for the sake of clarity, we’ll drop in a few facts.

Characterizing most illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals is both offensive and contrary to data from several studies indicating immigrants are less prone to commit crimes against others than the native-born population. The Migration Policy Institute estimates less than 3 percent of the 11 million undocumented foreigners living in the U.S. have committed felonies, compared to 6 percent of the overall U.S. population (2010, Population Association of America).

His “sanctuary cities” claim is another red herring. Georgia law prohibits cities from actively serving as “sanctuaries” to shield undocumented immigrants from federal authorities and withholds state funding from those that do. All municipalities can do is choose to cooperate by holding detainees for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, as Hall County does through its 287(g) program, or passively refrain from doing so.

But regardless of whether a county or city actively works to aid ICE, there is no corner of the U.S. in which federal authorities don’t have jurisdiction to apprehend anyone, making the term “sanctuary” a misnomer.

While Williams’ appalling stunt was purely symbolic, it’s worth noting neither he nor fellow candidate Brian Kemp in his “big truck” are rounding up anyone to haul to the border. That’s the job of the federal government alone, reminding us how pointless it is for gubernatorial candidates to continue to focus on an issue that is a national concern.

You’ll recall when Georgia did try to insert itself into the immigration mess with a law in 2012, it didn’t go well. The crackdown on migrant workers drove many to other states and left farmers with produce rotting in the fields and no one to pick it, resulting in losses of $140 million.

Prosperity-minded conservatives — i.e., those who use their heads — realize the U.S. economy relies on immigrant labor. Our state and county are dependent on agriculture, hospitality and construction, industries that thrive on the sweat of migrant workers. Reasonable and enforceable worker visas are the favored solution for those who like their Vidalia onions and don’t want to pay a fortune for them. And anyone who still believes unemployed U.S. nationals will fill those jobs should check with South Georgia farmers who found out otherwise.

One can be opposed to illegal immigration and still acknowledge it involves human beings who deserve to be treated as such, rather than demean them all as dangerous criminals. State leaders who want to grow the economy should urge Georgia’s congressional delegation to support legislation that will secure the border in exchange for legal employment status for law-abiding immigrants.

That won’t happen as long as politicians try to win elections by pouring gasoline on smoldering resentment and appealing to ugly nativist attitudes. What they call getting “tough on immigration” often seems little more than pure hostility.

Gainesville’s immigrant population is settling in and becoming more accepted, and will gain political and economic influence over time. As residents get to know each other, they will learn to co-exist with respect despite attempts to divide us.

So, Senator, stick that on your bus and drive it somewhere else. It’s not welcome here.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.