AUSTIN (AP) — A civil rights summit headlined by four of the five living U.S. presidents began Tuesday in Texas with a top Republican and Democrat expressing common ground on immigration reform and speakers comparing toppled gay marriage bans to racial equality victories in the 1960s.
Former President Jimmy Carter was the first president scheduled to speak later Tuesday at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, which is holding the three-day summit to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Johnson signed the law that banned widespread discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities and against women. While his presidency is often viewed in the dark shadow of the Vietnam War, the library believes his legacy deserves as much attention for the Texan’s victories on civil rights.
The summit began with former Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a fast-rising Democrat and top surrogate of President Barack Obama, urging Congress to tackle immigration reform before the end of the year.
“The stupidest thing we can do economically is make them leave. We don’t have anybody to replace them,” said Barbour, referring to the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country without legal documentation. “So the impracticality of sending them home should be obvious to everyone.”
Their discussion was interrupted by a woman in the crowd shouting she was a so-called DREAMer — a young person who immigrated illegally into the United States — and calling on Castro to urge Obama to stop deportations of families.
No one removed the woman, who began shouting again when the panel was over.
Castro, the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, did not respond to the woman but later said he was troubled by families who are deported after minor crimes such as traffic stops.
“My hope is that his administration will go about it in a different way. I’m not comfortable with the number of deportations,” Castro said.
President Obama is scheduled to give the keynote address Thursday. Bill Clinton will speak Wednesday, and George W. Bush will be the event’s final speaker Thursday. George H.W. Bush, 89, is the only living former president not attending the summit.
The library also has a “Cornerstones of Civil Rights” exhibit that features the original Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, both signed by Johnson, and a copy of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln that declared all slaves in Confederate states free.
Another opening panel Thursday discussed the sweeping victories of same-sex couples in federal court that overturned state bans on gay marriage. Attorney David Boies, who is fighting the same-sex marriage ban in Virginia, said attitudes across the country about the issue are rapidly changing among young people.
“That’s going to settle the issue in this country,” Boies said.
The early discussions did not include any supporters of same-sex marriage bans or get-tough immigration policies. Most states and same-sex couples are waiting for a case to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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