60 Voices: Helen Kim Ho and Daniela Rodriguez on immigrants’ growing influence in Atlanta

"There’s a straight line between being anti-immigrant and racist."

Daniela Rodriguez
Daniela Rodriguez

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Daniela Rodriguez immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her mother when she was 13 years old. She organized the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance (SUYA) while in college at Armstrong State University and, since graduating, has twice been named one of the 50 Most Influential Latinos in Georgia by the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Helen Kim Ho
Helen Kim Ho

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Helen Kim Ho immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when she was four years old. She grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Emory University School of Law in 1999. After living in Manhattan and then Houston, Ho returned here in 2006 to join the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 2010, she founded the Southeast’s first Asian American civil rights nonprofit, now known as Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta.

DR: I am undocumented. I was always told, in the U.S., if you work hard for something, your dreams become a reality. That’s the reason my mother brought me to the U.S. She wanted a better life, not only for herself but for me. When I was 16, I realized being undocumented meant that I couldn’t get a driver’s license. But I was poor; I couldn’t have a car. So, that didn’t matter. I took AP classes; I was involved in clubs. I graduated at the top of my class. But because I didn’t have a Social Security Number, none of that mattered. Going to college was going to be extremely hard. Classmates who didn’t do as good as I did got full rides; I felt angry at the system. Thankfully, I got a scholarship in Savannah. If you are undocumented, you pay out-of-state tuition, which is three times as much. This is why we have to continue the good trouble. As long as you don’t let us pursue our right to education—no justice, no peace. I had to be the best of the best to get even a little opportunity.

HKH: One thing I wish people in our state understood is that the civil rights movement serves as a bedrock for all freedom movements in America, including the immigrant rights movement. However, in the South, historically, it’s been so Black and white. This is no critique to the Black community or to the South, but racism and discrimination continue to be embedded in people’s minds as Black versus white issues. People fail to understand the anti-immigrant stuff they hear—including trying to keep great students like Daniela from learning in Georgia—is racist. There’s a straight line between being anti-immigrant and racist. The height of anti-immigrant state legislation happened around 2013, and then, state legislators began to focus on another favorite: bashing the LGTBQ community with “religious liberty” bills. And then, women’s reproductive rights. Now, it’s voting rights.

DR: I remember going to Hispanic stores, and seeing flyers saying, “Don’t vote Democrat because they support abortion.” If you’re so pro-life, then how come there’s kids in cages, separated from their families? They want the kid to be born, but if they’re brown, [if] they don’t have a Social Security Number, they don’t matter? People say, I’m not into politics. Well, politics is into you—and your life, education, science, reproductive rights, budgets, and laws.

HKH: Every year, someone at the Capitol will propose in-state tuition for undocumented students. People think, Everything I want happens at the federal level. Not true. We can be most impactful at the local level, and that doesn’t mean passively waiting for an elected official to propose legislation. Find a legislator and say, You push it through and tell us how we can support you.

DR: A lot of people think because Georgia went blue, we’re fine. We still need driver’s licenses for undocumented people. There are counties that are still 287(g) [enabling local officials to enforce federal immigration laws]. We have education segregation: People who are undocumented cannot get accepted to UGA, Georgia Tech. We still have a long way to go.

HKH: I found the 1960 census for Georgia. Out of the 3.9 million people in the state, 70 percent were white and 30 percent were Black. There were only 2,753 people who identified as Indian, Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino; 544 were “other.” In 2018, 10 percent were foreign born. Immigrants have become an explosive force, in culture, food, music. Now, we’re voting and running for office and winning. There’s going to be a strong resistance to that.

DR: When I heard about [the spa shooting], it was shocking and sad, but in a way, predictable—the person who did it, how he had access to a gun, the way he was detained. White supremacy, gun control, privilege.

HKH: There was a mix of shock, not shock, [and] fear for those around me. I’d just put my daughter to bed and turned the television on. The channel happened to be on CNN. They didn’t show a picture of the killer or the victims, but as soon as I saw the headline, I knew. You’re not surprised the killer was a white male. Statistically, the people that propagate violence in America with guns are almost all men. We cannot avoid that just to coddle feelings. And it’s disproportionately against women. I’m tired of respectability politics; no other state in the country does that better than Georgia. No wonder we don’t talk about racism or misogyny. But none of this is new; racism against immigrants is not new. We still have the same horrific gun laws that led to mass shootings at all those schools. Children were shot to death in public schools, but were gun laws changed significantly? No. As activists, we talk about tipping points: What else do you have to see before you get it?

DR: On my Facebook page, I get messages from white males telling me, I’m glad you talk about being illegal; you make it really easy for me to kill you. They feel comfortable and safe enough to say that.

HKH: In a way, as an activist, you put your life on the line. Another point is that these were women. These were not just women; these were women of color. And not just women of color—these were working-class women of color. This is not just an intersection of race and gender, but race, gender, and class.

DR: This is not the last time it will happen.

HKH: People can be kicked out of this country for driving without a license. But you get to stay after shooting down eight people with a gun you bought the day before.

DR: I want the victims, their families, to know I will continue fighting for them. I know if I was the victim, someone would have fought for me.

HKH: I want [the survivors] to know: You are seen. You are important. I don’t care what kind of job you had or what amount of money you were making. Your lives are valuable, and people are fighting for justice.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.