Birmingham—A sharply divided U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a contentious public hearing here Friday, soliciting opinions on whether immigration crackdowns adopted in Alabama, Georgia and other states are increasing racial discrimination and hate crimes.
The commission members -- appointed by the White House and Congress to advise them on civil rights policy — argued with each other about what questions and testimony they should allow. They engaged in testy exchanges with witnesses over the pros and cons of the laws. And chanting, sign-waving demonstrators noisily disrupted the proceedings. Many others demonstrated outside.
Twenty state legislators, advocates for reduced immigration, civil rights activists and others were scheduled to testify at the panel's one-and-only hearing on the issue. The panel plans to compile the testimony and submit a report to Congress and the president.
The commission decided to hold its hearing in Alabama because the Yellowhammer State has passed what many observers view as the country's most stringent immigration enforcement law. Among other things, Alabama's law would require public school officials to determine the immigration status of their students.
A federal appeals court in Atlanta has put that law on hold amid a legal challenge brought by the Obama administration. That court is reviewing other provisions in Georgia and Alabama's laws, including a Georgia statute that empowers police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects.
Supporters of these measures told the commission they are helping enforce the nation's immigration laws, protecting homeland security and preserving jobs for U.S. citizens.
"What have been disregarded in this entire debate are the rights of the American citizens -- the Alabamians -- who have been displaced and lost some of their opportunities," said Alabama state Sen. Scott Beason, a Republican.
Critics argued the state laws are discouraging immigrants from reporting crimes or asking for disaster aid and prompting them to pull their children out of Alabama's public schools. They also dismissed language in the statutes that prohibit racial profiling by police.
"These are the most carefully crafted words to state that, 'We don't mean what we are about to do,'" said Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta.
Friday's disruptions started when Kris Kobach, who helped write Alabama's law, began to testify. Five women rose from their seats and turned their backs to the commission and Kobach, Kansas' secretary of state. The demonstrators wore red signs on their backs that spelled "Stop Hate."
Commission chairman Marty Castro called for order as one of the women began to loudly criticize Kobach and complain her civil rights had been violated. The women eventually left. But one by one, more demonstrators rose from their seats, criticizing Kobach and declaring they were undocumented and unafraid. They peacefully left when a uniformed police officer showed up.
Later, commissioner Todd Gaziano, a congressional appointee, objected when Castro, a President Barack Obama appointee, asked Kobach whether he agreed with some controversial views on illegal immigrants expressed by the author Arizona's immigration law, former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce. Gaziano complained Castro was straying from the focus of the hearing.
But the hearing became controversial even before it began. In a conference call Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil and immigrant rights groups criticized the commission for inviting a representative of the Federation for Immigration Reform, a Washington-based organization that advocates tougher immigration enforcement. In written testimony submitted to the panel, the SPLC called FAIR a "nativist hate group."
In an interview before the hearing Friday morning, Dan Stein, president of FAIR, called the SPLC's criticism defamatory and said he planned to call on the commission to remove the SPLC's testimony from the record.
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