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By Eric Stirgus October 18, 2010

Barnes trip to Mexico trip sparks new round of attacks

Editor's note: A response to the Oct. 1 U.S. Senate PolitiFact article can be found in Letters to the Editor

With the economy and the impact of illegal immigration on the job market on the minds of many voters this political season, Republican nominee for governor Nathan Deal recently attempted to remind Georgians that he -- not Democrat Roy Barnes -- is on their side concerning these issues.

The Deal campaign put together a 30-second ad that begins with Barnes discussing his goal of creating more jobs.

"We need to take care of our own," Barnes says.

"Hmm," a male voice says. "Sounds nice. But Roy Barnes proclaimed Mexican workers good for Georgia."

Deal's proof is an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from Nov. 8, 2001. The story detailed a meeting between Barnes, who was governor at the time, and then Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico City. Barnes is reported as saying that Georgia's experience with a fast-growing immigrant population has generally been beneficial.

"The labor we have received, primarily Mexicans, has fueled our economy," Barnes said.

He added: "We could not have had the Olympics in 1996 had it not been for that."

The Barnes campaign called the Deal ad a distortion of Barnes' position on immigrants legally working in the United States.

"Barnes praised 'immigration,' not illegal immigration, as having been 'beneficial' as it 'fueled our economy,' " the Barnes campaign said in a statement. "He urged President Bush to 'work [immigration] out' because 'governors can't control immigration policy.' "

Deal campaign spokesman Brian Robinson countered that it is disingenuous for the Barnes campaign to accuse Deal's ad of stretching the truth here. Barnes was certainly aware that most immigrant workers were not here legally, Robinson said.

"For him to imply otherwise doesn't pass the laugh test," Robinson said. "What percentage of that work force meets that criteria [of being in the U.S. legally]?"

We took a look. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated that in 2009, there were slightly more than 28,000 people in Georgia who were legal permanent residents or "green card" holders. The federal agency also tries to keep track of how many people are living illegally in the U.S. About 480,000 illegal immigrants were living in Georgia in 2009, according to Homeland Security estimates, and in 2000 the estimated total was 220,000. The Homeland Security report does not have a breakdown of what percentage of people living in Georgia illegally are from Mexico. Nationwide, Homeland Security estimates that 62 percent of illegal immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico. Applied to Georgia in 2000, that would be 136,400 illegal immigrants from Mexico. Presumably a large number of those were workers.

Barnes was in Mexico in 2001 for a four-day trade mission. Mexico was Georgia's third-largest trading partner, and Georgia companies were exporting $1 billion in products to that nation. State officials estimated at the time that Latino-owned businesses in Georgia had about $1.3 billion a year in annual sales. Some of Georgia's business titans, such as Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, came on the trip.

Barnes told a story in the 2001 AJC article about farmers in South Georgia, where he said "it's about as conservative as you can get," who wanted him to get health coverage for "migrant farmworkers." The governor noted the presidents of the United States and Mexico were discussing proposals for legalizing some undocumented Mexican workers.

"Old ideas have changed," Barnes said.

But since then attitudes toward illegal immigration have hardened, as highlighted by a poll that found 68 percent of Georgians support Arizona-type restrictions and enforcement of illegal immigration laws. And many politicians do not want to appear soft on the issue.

Barnes said during a July debate that he would support an Arizona-type law in the Peach State to fight illegal immigration. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law that has since gone before the courts that allows state and local law enforcement officers to ask people stopped for possible crimes to show proof they are in the United States legally.

Deal's first television ad, in July, slammed President Barack Obama over illegal immigration, promised Georgia would soon have an Arizona-type law and said he doesn't care what "liberals" think. Robinson accused Barnes of running from his "liberal record" with his support of the Arizona legislation. "He is all over the board on this," Robinson said.

Andra Gillespie, an assistant political science professor at Emory University, explained that Barnes is trying to cut into Deal's conservative base by taking a stand on illegal immigration that is seemingly popular with most Georgia voters. Gillespie said the Deal statement that Barnes "proclaimed Mexican workers good for Georgia" is misleading.

"Nathan Deal's campaign knows very well that when Roy Barnes went to Mexico and praised the contributions of Mexican immigrants [presumably in a spirit of good will and diplomacy], he was not explicitly supporting illegal immigration," the professor said. "But because Barnes did not specify his support for legal immigrant workers, the Deal campaign is taking advantage of the ambiguity and trying to fill in the blanks for voters."

We believe the Deal ad does accurately convey the quotes from Barnes in the 2001 AJC article. However, it's unclear that Barnes was talking specifically about illegal immigrants and, moreover, Barnes uttered the quotes nine years ago in a different political and economic climate. It doesn't necessarily follow that Barnes supports Mexican labor in Georgia today. So the ad lacks context that might give viewers a different impression. So by the definition of our Truth-o-Meter, the statement rates as Half True.

Our Sources

Nathan Deal television ad

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "In Mexico, Barnes hails immigration," Nov. 8, 2001

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Ga. candidates take a hard line. Barnes backs an Arizona approach; Johnson says copy Guantanamo Bay," July 17, 2010

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Ga. voters want Arizona-type law," July 17, 2010

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Voter Guide, John Monds

E-mail from Roy Barnes campaign spokesman Emil Runge, Oct. 14, 2010

E-mail from Emory University assistant professor Andra Gillespie, Oct. 15, 2010

Telephone interview with Nathan Deal campaign spokesman Brian Robinson, Oct. 14, 2010

U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, published April 2010, "U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2009"

U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, published January 2010, "Estimates of the Unauthorized Illegal Immigrant Population Residing in the United States

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