ATLANTA — As many parts of Georgia's law cracking down on illegal immigration took effect Friday, a Latino community group organized a "day without immigrants" to protest the measure.
The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights called for a day of non-compliance, asking businesses to close and community members to stay home and not work or shop. It was hard to say how many skipped work, but organizers said at least 125 Atlanta-area businesses closed to show their support Friday.
"We will mark our presence with our absence so that the state of Georgia takes note of the important role and contributions of Latinos in the state," the group's president, Teodoro Maus, said.
Georgia's Hispanic population has nearly doubled since 2000, to 865,689, or nearly 10 percent of the state's population, according to 2010 Census figures. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated Georgia's illegal immigrant population to be about 425,000 last year.
The effort — timed to coincide with the effective date of most parts of the new law — is part of a "human rights summer" in Georgia, during which organizers plan to visit Latino communities throughout the state to educate people and organize mobilizations. At the group's headquarters Friday, volunteers made banners and assembled packets of information to be handed out at a rally at the Capitol planned for Saturday, where organizers expect at least 10,000 people.
A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked a part of the law that authorizes police to check the immigration status of suspects without proper identification and to detain illegal immigrants and another that penalizes people who knowingly and willingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing another crime.
But the rest of the law took effect Friday, including parts that: make it a felony to use false information or documentation when applying for a job and create an immigration review board to investigate complaints about government officials not complying with state laws related to illegal immigration.
Starting Jan. 1, businesses with 500 or more employees must use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires. That requirement will be phased in for all businesses with more than 10 employees by July 2013. Also starting Jan. 1, applicants for public benefits must provide at least one state or federally issued "secure and verifiable" document.
"It is important as a community to come together," said Ricardo Lascarez, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, whose boss supported him taking three days off from his construction job to help prepare for the Friday and Saturday actions.
Alan Conner, owner of Dakota Blue, an Atlanta restaurant, said he thinks the law is unjust and planned to close for lunch Friday in solidarity.
"I certainly don't want to anger my clients, so it's a balancing act," he said. "But I thought it was important to express my support for the immigrant community."
At Plaza Fiesta, a mall in Atlanta that caters to the growing immigrant population, many stores were closed, with signs in the windows expressing opposition to the law and saying they would be closed Friday in solidarity with the immigrant community. Many restaurants in the food court, however, were open.
"It's sad, we all agreed not to open to support the Hispanic community that is about 95 percent of our business," said Carlos Chavez, owner of the Puras Tortas restaurant, gesturing to the other restaurants.
Chavez, a 54-year-old Mexican native and naturalized U.S. citizen, said he had planned to come to work Friday to do some prep for the next day and had given his staff the day off. But when he arrived, he saw the other restaurants open and decided he needed to open too and called his staff in.
Jose Luis Alavez, 34, who sat at a table in the food court, said he wasn't taking the day off from his construction job.
"I have bills to pay and I have a family to support," the father of two daughters said. "If I don't work today, I might not have work next week."
The illegal immigrant from Mexico has been in the U.S. for 15 years and said he's also skeptical of the idea of the "day without immigrants," saying similar actions in the past haven't had much effect.
That concern was also voiced by Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. He feared a single day wouldn't have much effect and could cost people their jobs in a tough economic climate.
"We tell people not to necessarily skip out on work without any authorization," he said, adding that he fully supports the rally and march at the Capitol on Saturday.
Maus' group is also trying to create shopping zones that are friendly to the immigrant community. After a business owner signs a "pledge of non-compliance" with the new law, they get a sign to put in their window that says "Immigrants Welcome Here, Georgia Buy Spot." The pledge involves committing publicly to opposing the new law, not allowing law enforcement in to check the immigration status of anyone inside, and not financially supporting lawmakers who voted for the law.
Diana Perez, a 25-year-old community organizer from Arizona, is on a three-week visit to Georgia to help with the "human rights summer" and was helping to put together information packets Friday.
"I know what they're going through because it's what we went through," Perez said, referring to a strict immigration law enacted last year in Arizona that has some similarities to Georgia's law. "It's a horrible thing and I wanted to support people here because they supported us last year."