Commission candidates say Athens should be less welcoming to immigrants and refugees

At a forum held by conservative group Athens Classic, three candidates for ACC Commission said that they would vote to overturn a 2019 resolution of support for Athens’ immigrant and undocumented communities and that they would not approve of Athens being a resettlement site for refugees.

When asked by the audience if they would vote to “repeal” the 2019 resolution and the 2022 “backroom deal” to resettle refugees in Athens, commission candidates Jason Jacobs, Stephanie Johnson and Sidney Waters all responded affirmatively.

A quick note: there was never any “backroom deal” in 2022 and it is not actually possible to repeal a resolution. Words, once voiced, can’t be taken back and will always remain as a reflection of the commission’s will at the time the resolution was passed. The 2019 resolution does not have the force of law, and neither did the letters sent by Mayor Kelly Girtz to the US State Department in 2022 and 2023 in support of refugee resettlement here. Thus, there is nothing to repeal.

What these candidates could do, if elected, would be to pass another resolution containing their opinions and beliefs about the best way to move forward. They could say, for example, that they don’t want Athens to be a refugee resettlement site and that Athens should not be welcoming to undocumented immigrants.

Jason Jacobs
Jason Jacobs, candidate for ACC Commission in District 2

Jacobs, who is running for commission in District 2, a left-leaning area that includes Boulevard, Normaltown and part of the east Athens neighborhood, told APN that he doesn’t agree with the 2019 resolution overall and that he would be interested in passing a new resolution that he feels the community would better support.

“[The 2019 resolution] sent a message of, ‘Come one, come all. Our doors are open to come in. If you need something, come here. If you cross illegally, don’t worry about it,’” Jacobs said. “My grandparents came here from Greece. They came here legally … Absolutely come one, come all, but if you’re coming in to look for a place to hide away from something else? And how can you distinguish one person from another?”

Research has shown that undocumented immigrants commit far fewer crimes than US citizens per person, including violent crimes. These immigrants are a vital part of the Georgia economy, particularly in the agricultural industry where they often face exploitative labor practices, including wage theft, human trafficking and even slavery.

The 2019 resolution in support of Athens’ immigrant and undocumented communities was written during the Trump presidency in a time of fear and uncertainty for migrants across the country. Trump’s draconian immigration policies separated thousands of families at the border, many of whom have yet to be reunited. A mass shooting in El Paso, Texas that claimed the lives of 23 people – the deadliest attack on Hispanic Americans in modern US history – took place just weeks before the resolution was written, as did large-scale immigration raids in Mississippi.

The immigrant community in Athens was deeply troubled by these events.

“Kids in our community are living in fear and terror of the immigration police and of the shootings,” Maria Fernandez told the ACC Commission in 2019. “Three weeks ago, they came to my house. My kids cried a lot. I have an eight-year old boy and a two-year old girl. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to tell them … Just today they heard someone knocking on the door. They said, ‘don’t open mom, I don’t want them to separate us.’”

“Many of our members are missing church, often,” Julio Caesar Hernandez told the commission during the same meeting. “Many in our community have been stricken by fear and barely want to leave their houses because of the question of deportation. I’ve been a pastor here in Athens for 18 years and there wasn’t fear or insecurity like this before.”

“We are all human. None of us chose where we were born,” said Maria Gomez. “It happened that some of us were born in places that didn’t give us opportunities. That’s why we value this beautiful country.”

These community members spoke to the mayor and commission in Spanish, with English translation provided by the immigrant rights group Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens.

The 2019 resolution proclaimed that Athens “embraces and celebrates” cultural diversity and that the Athens community benefits from the “hard work, cultural offerings and tax dollars of the immigrants who call Athens, Georgia home.” It recognized that Athens is more safe when all people feel comfortable interacting with police and urged that Athens’ families must be allowed to stay together.

The resolution denounced white supremacy and expressed the government’s commitment at that time to reverse the damage such bigotry has caused to communities of color. Depending on which commission candidates find success in the 2024 local election, this commitment may begin to waver.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

The 2019 resolution passed unanimously, with current Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Melissa Link, Allison Wright, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby all voting in favor.

“I have always said that this local government needs to lead,” Thornton said to the assembled crowd in 2019. “God, you’re not any different from anybody else. I have experience with Black racism, Black cultures being denied…This vote was very important for me today, to make a statement, to show my support.”

The Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition was heavily involved drafting the language for the resolution, as was Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens, Commissioner Tim Denson and Mayor Kelly Girtz.

Jacobs is opposed by Link in District 2, Johnson by Rashe Malcolm in District 6 and Waters by Commissioner Carol Myers in District 8.

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