FRANKFORT — The people at the center of Kentucky's immigration debate — Hispanic workers — rallied on the Capitol steps Tuesday against Senate Bill 6, which would create state crimes for illegal immigrants and those who harbor or transport them.
In English and Spanish, speakers told the crowd of several hundred that those who come to Kentucky to work have basic human rights and should not be harassed or ashamed. They chanted "Si, se puede," which translates roughly as, "Yes, it can be done." Several talked about coming to the United States from their home countries.
"Twenty-seven years ago I was living in extreme poverty, which caused me at age 15 to make a decision to leave my family in search of a better life," said Carlos Rico, a member of Laborers International Union in Louisville, who added that he and his family won legal residency in 1989 through an amnesty program.
"Thank the Lord, I accomplished my goal," Rico said. "In 27 years living in this country, I have worked in the fields picking vegetables. I have worked in the city building bridges and roads."
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Signs in the crowd included "Shame on Kentucky" and "Don't break up my family over papers."
The Republican-led Senate has passed SB 6, although the Democratic-led House shows little enthusiasm for it. It's currently the subject of discussion-only hearings in a House committee, with the focus on its estimated $40 million-a-year net cost, largely because of increased need for prisons, jails and foster care.
House Democrats are pushing a counter-proposal, a bill to require state and local governments and their private contractors to check the immigration status of employees by using E-Verify, a federal Internet database.
The House voted 90-6 on Tuesday to approve that measure, House Bill 3, and send it to the Senate. But it was not remarked upon at the rally.
At the rally, Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, won a roar of approval from the crowd by shouting, "Que tal, compadres?", which loosely means, "How's it going, buddies?"
"There are many of us in the House of Representatives who will not sit quietly and let this Senate Bill 6 see the light of day," Meeks said. "We will not stand by and promote racism and inequality and injustice being done to you, the citizens of the commonwealth of Kentucky."
"Why are we doing this?" Meeks asked. "Why does (Senate President David) Williams send us this bill?"
"Racism!" the crowd shouted in reply.
Juan Pena, a field supervisor for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, said SB 6 could lead to racial profiling and harassment of Hispanics in public, regardless of their legal status.
The bill authorizes police to attempt to determine a person's immigration status if he or she is stopped for another reason, such as a traffic violation, and is suspected of being an "unauthorized alien."
"We believe that Kentucky will continue to protect everyone, and we will refrain from any law that denies equal rights for anyone," Pena said.
After the rally, the lead sponsor of SB 6, Sen. John Schickel, said the bill is not racist.
"That saddens me, that these kinds of words would be used to describe this bill," said Schickel, R-Union, who added that his own grandfather legally emigrated to the United States from Germany. "This is just a simple bill that says the rule of law will prevail."
Under SB 6, local police would need probable cause to approach people and ask about their immigration status, Schickel said. The bill also includes language stressing that state and federal civil-rights laws must be observed, he said.
"A lot of safeguards are built into the bill," he said, "except that people are choosing to overlook them."