Thousands protest immigration bills at state Capitol

Thousands of protesters demonstrated Thursday outside the state Capitol in opposition to legislation targeting illegal immigrants.

The protesters say House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40 are unconstitutional, could harm Georgia’s economy and lead to racial profiling. They also called on Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bills if they reach his desk.

Some said Georgia should learn from Arizona’s experience after enacting similar legislation last year and scrap its bills. Arizona has faced economic boycotts, and a federal judge halted some of the most controversial parts of the law. Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said Thursday that people should boycott Georgia if its legislation is enacted.

Supporters of the legislation, meanwhile, say illegal immigrants are burdening Georgia's schools, hospitals and jails. And they point to a recent Pew Hispanic Center estimate that says Georgia is home to more illegal immigrants than Arizona, with 425,000 living here. Some of the co-sponsors of Georgia's legislation said Thursday's protest "only bolsters our resolve to see House Bill 87 signed into law."

Protesters chanted in Spanish: “Yes, we can!” Several carried posters and banners that declared: “We will not leave” and “No Human Being is Illegal.”

Capitol police Sgt. Jack West said 5,000 to 6,000 were present at the demonstration, where the Indigo Girls performed their song "Shame on You." The organizers gave higher estimates for the attendance, saying protesters came from across the state.

“We don’t want these kind of laws in Georgia that criminalize immigrants,” said Adelina Nicholls, an event organizer and the executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.

The ethnically diverse protesters included immigrant rights groups, civil rights organizations, religious leaders, politicians and businessmen.

Among them was Travis Kim, president of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce of Georgia, who carried a sign that read: “We oppose HB87/Arizona-style laws!”

“It will create an unfriendly business environment and promote racial profiling,” Kim said. “We don’t want to become another Arizona."

Among other things, HB 87 and SB 40 would authorize state and local police to verify the immigration status of suspects when they have "probable cause" to believe they have committed a criminal offense, including any traffic violations. HB 87 would also punish people who, while committing another crime, "knowingly" harbor or transport illegal immigrants or encourage them to come to the state.

Both bills have passed their respective chambers and are awaiting final resolution. Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City -- the author of HB 87 -- and several co-sponsors of the bill issued a statement Thursday in response to the protest.

"In contrast to these angry sign-waiving activists," the statement says, "there are millions of Georgia citizens working and raising their families, who no longer are willing to accept the loss of job opportunities to the nearly 500,000 illegal aliens in our state or to subsidize their presence with their hard earned tax dollars."

Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, the sponsor of SB 40, issued a statement through a Senate spokesman.

"Just as these people outside the Capitol are gathering legally in protest," he said, "immigrants who seek those great Constitutional protections should follow the law and come here legally."

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