ATLANTA -- Six young illegal immigrants were arrested Tuesday after they sat down and blocked traffic near the Georgia state Capitol to publicly declare their status and to protest state policies targeting people who are in the U.S. illegally, the latest in a string of such "coming out" events in Georgia and other parts of the country.
The young people were protesting a policy that bars Georgia's most competitive state colleges and universities from accepting illegal immigrants and they were opposing strict new state legislation. A federal judge on Monday blocked two key provisions of that law. The young people, who decided to risk arrest and deportation for their protest, say that's not enough.
Federal judges have now blocked parts of similar laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia from taking effect. Civil liberties groups have pledged to sue to block others in Alabama and South Carolina.
"It's time to stand up and let the world know that we need to fight for what we believe in," said Nataly Ibarra, a 16-year-old high school student.
Four of the young people arrested are high school students, one is a recent high school graduate and one is a 24-year-old college graduate. All six face charges of reckless conduct, obstructing law enforcement and obstructing the street. The three who are under 18 were to be released to their parents. Two 18-year-olds and the 24-year-old were set to be taken to the Fulton County Jail.
Barbara Gonzalez, press secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, issued a statement after the arrests: "ICE takes enforcement action on a case by case basis – prioritizing those who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by their criminal history and taking into consideration the specific facts of each case, including immigration history."
Last year, four young people were arrested during a sit-in at U.S. Sen. John McCain's office in Arizona. Students at several suburban Atlanta high schools staged walkouts last month, and a group of seven illegal immigrant young people were arrested in April after they sat down in a downtown Atlanta street and blocked traffic to call attention to their situation. Five others were arrested in May at the Indiana office of Gov. Mitch Daniels after a protest grew confrontational.
Many of the activists hold out hope for the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to legalization for certain young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The bill has been introduced several times in Congress without success. A Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the legislation Tuesday.
Several dozen students in their caps and gowns attended the hearing, despite their status as illegal immigrants. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced several who had demonstrated excellence in many facets of life but were unable to get jobs in their chosen fields.
"They want to serve the country they love," Durbin said. "All they want is a chance."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said lawmakers from both parties have compassion for the students who would be helped by the legislation, but he said the details are important. He pointed to changes that he believes are necessary for the bill before it can gain more Republican support.
Opponents of the DREAM Act often agree that young people brought here when they're young have compelling stories. But giving them a path to legalization could create increased competition for young Americans who already are having trouble finding jobs, they say.
The Georgia university system last fall adopted a policy barring state colleges and universities that have rejected academically qualified students in the prior two years from accepting illegal immigrants.
Judge Thomas Thrash on Monday ruled on a request by civil liberties groups to block Georgia's new illegal immigration law from taking effect until a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is resolved. Thrash temporarily blocked a provision 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.
The law's author, state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, has said it's needed to keep illegal immigrants from draining the state's resources.
Many parts of the law will take effect Friday. One of them makes it a felony to use false information or documentation when applying for a job. Another creates 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.
Also on Tuesday, the Birmingham, Ala., City Council unanimously approved a resolution seeking the repeal of Alabama's new law targeting illegal immigration, with members calling it a hateful reminder of the state's not-too-distant past as a bastion of legalized racial segregation.
Associated Press Writer Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.