Paul Bridges is the Republican former mayor of Uvalda, Ga., a southeast Georgia town of nearly 600 people located two hours west of Savannah. In May, Mayor Bridges received a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The library describes the award as the "nation's most prestigious honor for public servants" who exhibit loyalty to the public interest rather than partisanship.
Bridges, 61, lives in Georgia with his partner of 23 years, Rebecca Miller, as well as dairy goats and a dog. While mayor of Uvalda, Bridges helped to bring a suit to stop the state's H.B. 87 law. Among other things, the law made it a crime to transport or harbor immigrants found in the state without legal authorization. Bridges shared his experience with The Next America.
What would you say to a young man who called you on your cell phone and said that he is President John Kennedy's grandson and that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum had chosen you for a prestigious national award?
I was flabbergasted! I am the son of Georgia farmers and former mayor of a town with a population of only 592 people. I listened as Jack Schlossberg explained the Profile in Courage Award and its significance to the Kennedy legacy. I remained in disbelief, barely able to respond.
Then, I learned that I would be sharing the honor with another former elected official — and not just any politician, but a former president of the United States of America! On May 4 in Boston, Lauren Bush, granddaughter of President George H.W. Bush, and I stood side by side to receive the annual Profile in Courage Award. Unbelievable!
While we were honored for different reasons, as a fellow Republican, I am humbled to join President Bush and be a small part of the legacy that this award represents.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum presented this award in part because I joined a lawsuit against Georgia's "papers please" anti-immigration law implemented as a result of ignorance-fueled fears. I felt that I had no choice but to stand up against this 2011 law, H.B. 87, because it further flamed prejudice against our mixed-status immigrant community.
Mixed-status communities, like mixed-status families, include members who are citizens, others with immigration authorization papers, and undocumented immigrants. In mixed-status families and communities, the well-being and treatment of one individual often shapes and distorts the lives of others. So, reasonable treatment and basic legal protections are needed for all.
Before the courts overturned the law's central provisions, H.B. 87 allowed police in Georgia to demand proof of immigration status from anyone, even after a simple traffic violation. It also would have imposed criminal penalties on anyone who knowingly "harbors or transports" an undocumented immigrant. Worse, it terrorized thousands of those individuals and made them fear their families could be torn apart by a deportation every hour of every day. It made honest Georgia citizens into lawbreakers for being good neighbors. It also threatened to run my area's economy into the ground as families contributing to our economy, including many made up of members with various legal statuses, considered leaving the state rather than risk separation.
This extreme law would have denied me and my fellow Georgians the right to drive with our friends, host family members, or engage in other normal, daily activities without government intrusion. I couldn't stand by and watch my community be divided. So I was proud to join the legal effort that ultimately proved successful in striking down critical portions of Georgia's H.B. 87.
I knew that the reasonable Republican Party I had joined years ago stood for protection of the family, small business, liberty, privacy, and prosperity. H.B. 87 put these values under attack. It was unconstitutional. Fortunately, the courts agreed.
While I am honored and humbled to receive a Profile in Courage Award, I know in my heart that it didn't take courage to speak the truth. I felt as if I was witnessing a profound injustice. I was willing to speak up and was buoyed by the knowledge that there are millions of others who feel the same. That is all I have really done: speak the truth about immigration.
But immigration is a difficult and complex social and economic issue with equally difficult and complex solutions. Immigrants and immigration also are part of our national fabric. As the debate on immigration continues, it is my earnest hope that House Republican leaders, who also know the truth, will finally allow broad immigration reform to get a House vote.
Whether the House starts with small bills or something larger does not matter. Representatives from across the country know that immigration is not a state issue. Congress must act at the federal level. House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner must recognize the opportunity reform offers and vote on it now. House members must have the courage to act upon truth to resolve the impasse.
Paul Bridges was mayor of Uvalda from January 2010 to January 2014.
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