ATLANTA-Thousands of people gathered at the Georgia Capitol Thursday, waving signs and chanting to protest legislation that targets illegal immigrants.
Javier Mendez, his wife and their 18-month-old son were among the crowd that police estimated at roughly 5,000 people. The 35-year-old waiter, who lives in Roswell, said he came here from Mexico about five years ago to seek a better life.
"We are fighting for something we believe is fair," said Mendez, who works as a waiter. "We're not the criminals they say we are. We're just looking for a better opportunity."
The crowd, dressed mostly in white shirts at the request of organizers, chanted in Spanish and English and waved signs with slogans such as "Immigrants pick the crops that you eat every day!" and "Broken system, broken families." Speakers included activists, Democratic lawmakers, students and others. They urged Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.
Folk rock duo the Indigo Girls performed their song "Shame on You" with lyrics adapted for the rally while expressing their support.
"We're from Georgia and we don't want our state to pass any legislation that's really anti-immigrant," said Amy Ray, one half of the duo, in an interview. "We feel like the state is really richer and more productive with the Hispanic community here and we want to show them our support."
U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, encouraged the crowd to keep fighting. He noted that he was arrested dozens of times while working alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
"I was beaten, left bloody, but I didn't give up and you must not give up," he said to loud cheers. "If any of you get arrested and go to jail, I'm prepared to go to jail with you."
Bills sponsored by Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, and Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, both would require many employers to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires and would authorize law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who can't produce an accepted form of identification, among other provisions.
The Georgia lawmakers are pushing ahead even as Arizona legislators, who passed a tough law targeting illegal immigration last year, take a timeout from the issue amid concerns from business leaders that the issue is hurting the state's still-ailing economy.
Ramsey and several other Republican state representatives released a statement Thursday in response to the rally. They said they are working on behalf of millions of Georgians who have lost job opportunities to illegal immigrants, who they say are being subsidized by tax dollars.
"We are the voice for these common sense Georgians and this kind of protest only bolsters our resolve to see House Bill 87 signed into law," the lawmakers said.
Ramsey said in an interview that he has compassion for people who come here legally, but has little sympathy for those who don't follow the proper procedures. He also dismissed assertions that illegal immigrants are doing jobs Americans don't want.
"I don't believe that for one second," he said. "When it's tough times like this, people will do anything to put food on the table."
Each of the comprehensive immigration bills in Georgia has passed its respective chamber of the Legislature. Ramsey said he hopes his bill will pass the Senate next week and then, if Murphy's bill passes the House, a joint legislative committee will likely work to resolve the differences between the two.
"At this time, no immigration legislation has passed both houses of the Legislature, so there's no final bill on which we can comment," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.
State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, said he hopes his legislative colleagues hear the message and don't send the immigration bills to the governor's desk.
"We have to make sure the walls of the Capitol tremble today with the message that we need to do what is best for the state of Georgia and for the immigrant community here," he said in an interview.
Georgia's economy will suffer if the laws pass because international businesses will be discouraged from coming here and the important tourism and convention business will falter as well, rally organizers said. They cited similar problems in Arizona since that state passed its tough law last year. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, called for a boycott of Georgia if the law passes.
"I'm tired of being nice and I'm ready to fight," he said. "Why should we spend our money in a state that doesn't respect us?"
D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, is a supporter of Ramsey's bill and said the rally reinforces his position.
"House Bill 87 has all the right enemies," he said as he observed the gathering. "These people are anarchists."
Marcia Wever, 57, an Atlanta resident who owns a services company, said she came to the rally as an American to support her employees.
"I have wonderful men working for me who have no desire to do anything other than better their lives and the lives of their children," she said.
M.A. Ramirez, a 42-year-old bartender who lives in Atlanta and is in the country illegally, said he came here from Mexico for work. His children, who are 11 and 9, were born here and are American citizens. He took issue with the claim that illegal immigrants are draining taxpayer-funded resources without making contributions.
"I spend my money here," he said. "I don't take the money out. I pay taxes."