The nation’s legal immigration system has been massively clogged for years. As of Nov. 1, about 4.3 million immigrants who have relatives in the United States were waiting for family-sponsored visas to live here legally, according to a U.S. State Department report. For family-sponsored visas, the worldwide limit for fiscal year 2017 is 226,000. The country with the longest waiting list for visas is Mexico with 1.3 million people in line, followed by 387,323 from the Philippines and 331,423 from India.
Given the huge backlog, reducing legal channels for immigration could create unintended consequences, said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“If passed,” he said of the legislation, “it will be a major motivator in increasing illegal immigration, as families continue to try to reunite.”
The bill also comes as millions of people remain displaced by deprivation and violence around the world. In 2015, a record 65.3 million were driven from their homes by conflict and persecution, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. That number includes 21.3 million refugees, many of whom fled the bloody civil war in Syria.
Georgia receives just a few thousand refugees fleeing persecution each year. In the budget year ending in September, 3,017 were resettled in Georgia, mostly from Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Syria.
The head of one local refugee resettlement agency called the legislation “misguided and counterproductive,” adding he was disappointed one of Georgia’s senators signed onto it.
“Slamming the doors on refugees and immigrants is fundamentally un-American and ignores the tenets of who we are as a nation and the history of our founding,” said J.D. McCrary, the executive director of the Atlanta International Rescue Committee. “The United States is a country of immigrants with a long, proud history of providing safe refuge for the world’s most vulnerable fleeing conflict and persecution, and our country has benefited tremendously, not only economically but also culturally, socially and in every aspect of our society, by every immigrant who has arrived.”
Advocates point out that refugees work in many of Georgia’s largest industries — including poultry processing, tourism and hospitality — and they pay taxes here. Some create their own businesses and employ other Georgians. And 91 percent of refugee households in Georgia become self-sufficient, meaning they are working and paying their own expenses, within six months of arrival, according to the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies
“Those who come to the United States due to persecution and war are highly motivated and have proven to be innovative and successful, contributing greatly to our economy,” said Frances McBrayer, the chairwoman of the coalition. “To keep America vibrant and successful, we need to keep the doors open to refugees. Diminishing the opportunity for refugees to resettle here ultimately diminishes us as a nation.”