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.
"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, a leader of the 1960s civil rights movement, 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.
State Reps. Matt Ramsey and Sen. Jack Murphy, both Republicans, have sponsored legislation that would require many employers to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires. Legislation also would authorize law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who can't produce an accepted form of identification.
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 struggling economy.
In a statement Thursday, Ramsey and several other Republican state representatives said they are working on behalf of millions of Georgians who have lost job opportunities to illegal immigrants, who the lawmakers 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 the legislation passed into law, the state representatives 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 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.
"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 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.