BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A quarrelsome U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held its first hearing on state laws that target illegal immigration, with Republican backers arguing Friday that the measures are vital to protecting American jobs and fighting crime.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped write similar immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama, said unemployment in Alabama has dropped three times faster than the national average since parts of the state's law took effect last fall — a change he credited at least in part to the act.
Attempting to head off claims that the laws lead to racial profiling by police, Kobach said the immigration enforcement specifically bar officers from making stops or arrests based on appearance.
As he spoke, four Hispanic women and a girl stood in the audience with their backs toward Kobach. Demonstrators, some speaking Spanish, stood up holding signs that said "Undocumented" and shouted at Kobach.
"These laws are based on hate," said one man.
The meeting room quieted after officers escorted protesters away, but the commissioners still bickered among themselves. The eight-member panel is split between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and the divide was clear.
Congressional appointee Todd Gaziano, legal director of the conservative Heritage Foundation, accused the demonstrators of "hateful speech," and Democratic member Michael Yaki responded that Gaziano was only making matters worse by loudly demanding that security remove the protesters.
"Thank you for your wisdom," Gaziano said sarcastically.
Gaziano and chairman Martin R. Castro, appointed by President Barack Obama, exchanged sharp words throughout the opening session. Members even disagreed over who should be allowed to testify, with organizations accusing each other of being a hate groups.
The commission will issue a report within months on the findings of the hearing, which focused on whether the state laws foster discrimination and run counter to civil rights laws. But the panel doesn't have any enforcement power, and it can't make states alter their laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down three parts of Arizona's law in June, but it upheld a section that requires police to check the status of people who might appear to be in the country illegally. The ruling was closely watched because Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah have approved similar laws.
Courts have blocked all or parts of the laws in each state, and legal challenges are now moving forward since the justices ruled on the Arizona statute.
State Rep. Stacey Abrams, minority leader in the Georgia House, said legislators who passed that state's immigration law failed to provide money to train police on how to enforce it.
"We've simply given them another job to do with no money to do it ...," she told the commission.
Law opponent Tammy Besherse, an attorney with South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, accused law officers of destroying immigrants' legal documents and of playing computer games in which participants kill Mexican immigrants.
GOP state Sen. Scott Beason, a key sponsor of Alabama's law, said opponents of the laws and the media place more value on the rights of illegal immigrants than the plight of legal U.S. citizens who can't find work because of people living in the country unlawfully.
"We cannot solve the world's problems, but we can make sure we don't import some problems ...," said Beason. Responding to a question about a U.S. Chamber of Commerce that cast immigration in a positive light, Beason said the business organization is "pretty slanted" because some of its members employ illegal immigrants.
Castro said the Alabama hearing was the commission's first outside of Washington, D.C., in years. The panel's first-ever was held in Birmingham in 1958, when state and local laws mandated racial segregation.
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