ATLANTA - Jose-David and Lourdes Resendiz have lived in Georgia for 14 years, but with the governor likely to sign a bill passed by the Legislature that aims to crack down on illegal immigration, they're packing up their things and preparing to leave.
They were among a crowd at a May Day rally Sunday at the Georgia Capitol Sunday that police estimated at about 1,000. Chanting in Spanish and English, waving signs and cheering heartily for each speaker, they urged Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill that contains some provisions similar to a tough law enacted last year in Arizona.
Speakers encouraged illegal immigrant workers not to leave the state but instead to dig in, organize and mobilize.
"In the labor movement we have a saying 'Don't Mourn - Organize!' We may want to mourn HB87, but let us instead organize like never before," said Ben Speight, organizer director of the Teamsters Local 728
The bill passed by state lawmakers last month would authorize law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of certain suspects and to detain them if they are in the country illegally. It would penalize people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job. It also requires many businesses to verify the immigration status of new hires using an online federal database.
Deal, who has long been a supporter of strict immigration measures, has said he plans to sign the legislation into law.
The bill has drawn criticism from civil liberties and immigrant rights groups, who say it will encourage racial profiling. Many in the business, agriculture, service and tourism and convention sectors have also expressed concern, saying it could drive away their workforce and make Georgia seem unwelcoming.
Supporters of the bill say it's necessary to curb illegal immigration, which they say drains the state's resources and contributes to high rates of unemployment.
"Gov. Deal and the Legislature found a workable solution that enforces the rule of law and protects Georgia taxpayers while upholding individuals' constitutional rights," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson wrote in an email Friday. "Illegal immigration costs Georgia taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, each year at the city, county and state levels."
Irving Penso, a 64-year-old Atlanta native who teaches English as a second language, said he hopes the governor will "do the right thing" and veto the bill.
"The reputation of the state is at stake, this would be a huge step backward," he said. "When one group is oppressed it reflects badly on all of us."
Angel Salome, a 17-year-old high school junior, was brought to the United States as a 2-month-old infant strapped to his mother's back as she swam across the Rio Grande. He spoke at the rally and said he'd like his friends to speak out as well. His favorite subject in school is U.S. history, and he plans to go to college and law school with dreams of becoming an immigration lawyer.
"I'm going to get that college degree and hopefully be able to provide some financial stability for my mother so she never has to scrub another toilet or tub again," he said after addressing the crowd.
In a nod to May Day's roots as a workers' day, Charlie Flemming, of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, part of the AFL-CIO, told the protesters that organized labor stands behind them.
"These state immigration laws unjustly target a segment of our society. It's not only unconstitutional, it's just unfair," he said. "I think it's important for us as a labor movement to embrace our immigrant community. We're really supportive of pushing real, national immigration reform."
Resendiz, 40, who works installing insulation, said his wife is packing things up, preparing to leave their home in Buford. He's thinking of heading to Utah. His 42-year-old wife, who works in a Chinese restaurant, said she plans to return to Mexico until he has a chance to assess the situation in Utah, and then she might join him there.
"We're illegal, but we came to this country for a better life," Jose-David Resendiz said in Spanish. "We aren't crooks, we aren't violent. We pay taxes and we spend money here. We just want to work to have a better life.
Utah's governor recently signed an immigration package that includes an enforcement law reminiscent of Arizona's and would also create a state guest worker program. The Utah law isn't set to enter into effect until 2013 because state officials need time to seek a federal waiver - for which a process doesn't currently exist - to give the state the right to issue temporary work permits and other actions generally reserved for the federal government.