ATLANTA - Civil rights advocates charged Gov. Sonny Perdue on Monday with seeking to score political points on the illegal immigration issue at the expense of Georgia Latinos.
During a news conference at the Capitol, Hispanic and black leaders criticized remarks Perdue made recently in announcing an initiative targeting criminals who use false documents to obtain driver's licenses.
"It is simply unacceptable for people to sneak into this country illegally on Thursday, obtain a government-issued ID on Friday, head for the welfare office on Monday and go to vote on Tuesday,'' the governor said.
Such incendiary comments both oversimplify the issue and foster racism, said Teodoro Maus, an advisor to the Coordinating Council of Community Leaders, one of the groups that organized Monday's news conference.
"It has opened a Pandora's box for direct discrimination,'' he said. "We have to stop it. We have to come back to reality.''
State Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Norcross, whose Gwinnett County Senate district is the most diverse in the state, accused Perdue of playing a destructive brand of politics in his bid for a second term this fall.
"These types of remarks ... use race to win elections,'' Thompson said. "That's no way to govern. We ought to do better.''
After the news conference, the groups delivered an open letter to Perdue's office urging him to stop using Latino immigrants as "scapegoats'' in his campaign.
The letter expresses concern that the governor's new initiative will increase racial profiling.
But Perdue said both his comments and the new program were aimed at criminals, not law-abiding immigrants.
"I won't apologize for criminal activity,'' he said. "We welcome people who come to our state. We just cannot condone those coming illegally and getting false documents, then using those documents to get services to which they're not entitled.''
The governor signed an executive order late last year requiring people seeking non-emergency public services to provide proof of citizenship. The General Assembly passed legislation this year containing a similar provision.
But speakers at Monday's news conference argued that solving illegal immigration should be the federal government's job, not Georgia's.
"Americans ... want their Congress to pass a just immigration reform as the only body empowered to enact immigration laws ... under our federal system of government,'' the letter stated.
Both the U.S. House and Senate have passed major reform bills during the past year. But the two sides are so far apart in resolving the vast differences between the measures that the legislation is expected to die with the end of the current congressional term in January.
Perdue has said that he and state lawmakers acted on the immigration issue because Congress failed to step forward.