Rodney Hunt, co-founder of the Mississippi Federation for Immigrant Reform… (Rogelio V. Solis, AP )
FLOWOOD, MISS. — Rodney Hunt, fresh off work in a starched, buttoned-down shirt, joined the crowd that was streaming into a meeting of the Central Mississippi Tea Party.
It was just after the state primaries, and Hunt, 65, a reserved man by nature, had emerged as something of a Mississippi kingmaker.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 13, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Illegal immigration: An article in the Oct. 8 Section A about Rodney Hunt, head of a Mississippi anti-illegal- immigrant group, erred in identifying an attorney for a pro-immigrant group, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. She is L. Patricia Ice, not Stephanie Ice. The article also attributed to Ice the fact that one of her clients, Uzi Bohadana, was an Israeli army veteran. That fact is according to a 2001 Associated Press report, not Ice.
Hunt's organization, the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, or MFIRE, had endorsed Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who had just crushed his opponent in the GOP primary and appeared destined to become governor, partly because he was promising voters he'd push for a tough anti-illegal-immigration law -- the group's signature issue.
As the tea party members gathered at Flowood City Hall, other conservative candidates made sure to pay their respects to Hunt, an oral surgeon who came out of obscurity to become the citizen leader of this Deep South state's movement against illegal immigration.
"Rodney, how you doin'?" they said, gripping his outstretched hand.
Hunt and his fellow activists had called their meeting on this muggy August evening to discuss how conservatives might finally wrest control of the state House of Representatives from liberal Democrats. To lure a crowd, the website advertising the meeting noted that the House had "single-handedly blocked Arizona-style immigration legislation."
Hunt had a copy of that morning's Jackson Clarion-Ledger rolled up in his hand like a baton. He had underlined a chunk of the front page that described how Democrats were using the headquarters of the state's main pro-immigrant group as a meeting place to certify results of a local primary.
It was more proof, Hunt said, that Democrats were in the tank for the amnesty crowd. He thought he might bring up the matter tonight, to inspire the troops.
Latinos have moved to the South in growing numbers over the last decade, and their presence has been accompanied by growing anger and resentment aimed at illegal immigrants. If Hunt gets his way, Mississippi will become the latest Southern state to pass a law aimed at driving illegal immigrants out -- establishing the Deep South as the U.S. region with the most-stringent restrictions on illegal immigrants.
In Mississippi, there's a struggle that goes beyond immigration. Latinos, regardless of legal status, are part of a grand contest to define the state's future.
Blacks, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, make up 37% of Mississippi's population, the highest percentage of any state. Latinos, if they vote Democratic, could one day tip the balance of power in a state where whites -- that is, white Republicans -- have the upper hand.
When Hunt describes this dynamic, it is not in racial terms -- because, he says, these are not the terms he thinks in. Though he is a white Mississippian raised in the '60s, he says, "I changed, along with most of the people in my generation. We try to accept people as they are, and not by the color of their skin."
His public appeals have been based on familiar arguments about illegal immigrants: the jobs they are taking, their flouting of the rule of law, their burden on government coffers.
His broad goal, he said, is not to retain white power in Mississippi. It's to retain conservative power.
"It has nothing to do with race," he says.
The crowd poured into Flowood's council chambers, Hunt among them. They stood for a prayer and the Pledge.
Roughly 90 of the 95 people in the room were white.
Hunt lives in a sylvan gated community in this majority-white suburb of Jackson, far from the chicken plants and casinos and construction sites that have lured illegal immigrants, most of them Latino, to Mississippi.
Their lives and his intersect only on rare occasions, he says, such as when he needs work done on his house. At these times, he usually asks a contractor whether he employs illegal immigrants or legal workers.
"I got both kinds," he recalls one roofing contractor telling him, just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "Which do you want?"
The state's illegal immigrant population is relatively small: The state auditor's office estimates there are 90,000 -- about 3% of the state's 2.9 million people. (The census estimates that Latinos, regardless of legal status, make up 2.7% of the population.) But the illegal population has been growing fast enough to create a palpable anxiety.
Mississippi liberals suspect the anxiety is fueled by old-school bigotry.
"Remnants of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor" is the blunt assessment of Democratic Rep. Jim Evans, an African American and president of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the state's main pro-immigrant group.
Bill Chandler, a longtime labor activist and executive director of the alliance, said some whites feared what might happen if Latinos align themselves with blacks. "These kinds of things are scaring ... most of the white folks here," he said. "That's why it's such an obsession in these Deep South states."