Anthony Pham immigrated to the United States in 1982 from Vietnam and became a citizen five years later, after President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration law that sped the legalization process for millions of new Americans.
Now a business owner and proud Republican in Georgia’s staunchly conservative 10th Congressional District, Pham says he supports maintaining legal status for young immigrants living in the United States illegally who were brought to the country as children.
“When they come here as children, they can become American citizens if they are good, not bad people,” Pham says of the 800,000 or so immigrants affected by President Donald Trump’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Children Program (DACA) put in place during the Obama administration.
Trump says he’s giving Congress six months to end the limbo status for these young immigrants. Yet Pham says that what Congress does — or doesn’t do — won’t change his support for the president or his congressman, outspoken conservative Jody Hice.
“I am Republican. I am with Mr. Trump,” Pham says, sitting in the courthouse square barbershop he’s owned in Walton County since 1993.
Pham’s view echoes across Republican congressional districts like Georgia’s 10th, a wide expanse of small towns between Atlanta and Augusta. And it highlights the political conundrum facing deeply divided Republicans whom Trump has called on to craft some kind of legislative solution, giving them an election-year deadline.
The conservative voters who dominate here and in many other GOP districts profess varying degrees of sympathy for the immigrants affected by Obama’s program and then Trump’s reversal. But these voters also are convinced that illegal immigration is a drag on Americans’ economic opportunity, and they want the GOP-controlled Congress to stand with a president they see as defending U.S. workers and the rule of law.
That means members of Congress have little incentive to risk angering core supporters with any legislation that can be branded as “amnesty.”
“What part of ‘illegal’ don’t people understand?” booms Elwood Suggins, an 82-year-old Trump backer in Walton County.
Fellow Republican Troy Trantham, 77, says immigrants are “getting the mine” while American workers “are getting the shaft.” That’s a biting version of a common argument here that immigrants, particularly those in the country illegally, get public benefits without paying taxes.
At the least, 73-year-old Frank Young says, “they’re taking American jobs.”
Hice won election in 2014 in part as an immigration hard-liner appealing to voters such as Suggins, Trantham and Young, who are representative of the older, whiter electorates that dominate midterm elections, particularly in GOP-leaning districts.
Hice’s aides say he’s open to negotiation on the immigrant program and that he doesn’t want to see a mass deportation of its beneficiaries. But his campaign website still blasts “amnesty” and argues that illegal immigration “drives up the cost of education, health care, police and judicial services and social services.”
Since Trump’s decision this past week to end the Obama program, Hice has signed on to two Republican immigration proposals. But those deal mostly with the process employers use to check the legal status of job applicants and do not explicitly address the plight of the young immigrants.
There are Republicans in this Georgia district favoring a legislative solution, including one who wants to challenge Hice next year.
“There needs to be a fix so these kids don’t have to look around the corner for an ICE agent every time they try to contribute to society,” says Joe Hunt, an executive with a restaurant franchising business in Athens.
The local economic development chief, Shane Short, said he has “no personal opinion on DACA,” but he described the economy as “booming,” saying he’s managing proposed business deals totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars in Walton County alone.
The total immigrant population in the district is small, with the Census Bureau measuring the foreign-born population at 5.4 percent, well below the national figure nearing 13 percent. That’s even though the district’s leading industry, agriculture, relies on considerable immigrant labor.
Hunt, Hice’s prospective primary opponent, said those realities pale in districts such as the Georgia 10th partly because they are drawn to conservatives’ advantage. So the representatives “sit around and take no action because they are afraid of getting hammered for amnesty.”
Indeed, the 10th is a district weighted to conservatives.
Athens-Clarke County, home to the University of Georgia, once anchored a competitive congressional district that elected moderate Democrats. But Republicans divided Athens-Clarke into separate districts, diluting the influence of its liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Trump won Hice’s district with 61 percent of the vote in November, while Hice ran unopposed.
“It ought to take Congress 10 days to fix this, but this Congress couldn’t do it in 10 years,” Hunt said.
Hice’s and Trump’s most enthusiastic backers explain that they aren’t opposed to all immigrants.
“It’s just not an easy answer, if they came here when they were 6-years-old, or even babies,” said Gene Briscoe, an 82-year-old retiree in Monroe who voted for Trump.
John Bramblett, 74, says he worked with many immigrants in the construction business and knows the local agriculture concerns depend on them as well.
And they both say they know local immigrants-turned-citizens, citing Pham and the families that run popular restaurants in town.
“They’re good people,” Briscoe said. After a pause, he adds, “They came legally.”
Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.
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