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COLUMN ONE : THE NEW LATINO SOUTH

A man's crusade in the South

Rodney Hunt came out of obscurity to become the citizen leader of Mississippi's anti-illegal-immigrant movement.

October 08, 2011|Richard Fausset

Accusations of racism are commonly hurled by the left at anti-illegal immigration forces, particularly in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, all of which have adopted tough immigration laws in recent months.

Hunt is dismayed by the accusations. Though his columned, custom home is in the old plantation style, he takes pains to mention that he is no scion of the planter class, but the self-made son of a dry-goods salesman from rural Oktibbeha County.

Hunt says he still identifies with "the working man" -- the legal one, at least -- and that concern for the working class is what fuels his passion. He fears that illegal immigrants lack the cultural background that encourages boot-strapping success stories like his.

"A lot of them come from countries that are Third World countries, where individual responsibility may not be as valued as it is here in the United States," he said.

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.

"When they come here, they unfortunately get on the entitlement programs, and I think they'll vote for the entitlement programs," he added.

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For most of his life, Hunt did not intervene in public matters. He was building his medical practice, raising a family and coaching youth baseball.

His was the last generation of Mississippi apartheid, but he, like many others, sailed through his all-white high school and his all-white Mississippi College somewhat isolated from the violence and unrest that surrounded him: Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered by a white supremacist a few miles from Hunt's high school in Jackson in the summer between his junior and senior years.

To this day, Hunt insists, he was out of the state, in professional school in Tennessee and Georgia, during "the main parts of the civil rights movement."

As an adult, politics was way down on the list of things to talk about when he'd go deer hunting with his old friend Ken Jones, an ophthalmologist. Then out of the blue one day, Hunt brought up illegal immigration. Jones recounted the conversation:

"You ought to come to one of our meetings," Hunt said. "We've got this organization, MFIRE, and we want to get a handle on this illegal immigration before it gets out of hand down here."

Later, Jones said, he thought: What came over him?

Hunt has told the story of the life-changing event numerous times.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, federal immigration officials brought a man to his office who'd had his jaw broken by detainees at a jail after the man, according to Hunt, "allegedly made derogatory comments about the U.S."

Hunt said he later learned from news reports that the man was an "Israeli Muslim" who had "overstayed his visa and had been in our country illegally for 2 1/2 years." It spurred him to co-found MFIRE.

Others dispute some of the story's key facts.

The man he operated on, Uzi Bohadana, was Jewish, not Muslim, according to two of his attorneys at the time.

One of the attorneys, Stephanie Ice, who now works with MIRA, said Bohadana was an Israeli army veteran who had been in the country for less than six months on a tourist visa. He had been detained on suspicion that he was working for pay, in violation of the visa's terms, Ice said. (Harry E. Moran, a friend of Hunt's and head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's state office at the time, remembers it differently. He recalled that the visa had expired.)

Bohadana could not be reached and the disposition of his case is unclear. In previous interviews, he said he was beaten not for making anti-American statements, but because he looked Middle Eastern and the detainees figured him for a terrorist.

Shortly after the incident, Hunt teamed up with Moran, who also was growing concerned about illegal immigrants coming to the Southeast. They began knocking on the doors of state politicians, asking for action. The Democrats, Hunt said, wouldn't meet with them. The Republicans would meet but then not do anything.

One of the few who took action was Phil Bryant, the current gubernatorial front-runner, who was then state auditor and looking to move up the political ladder.

In November 2005, a Bryant aide joined Hunt and two other men in founding MFIRE. Three months later, Bryant's office released a report estimating that illegal immigrants were costing Mississippi taxpayers $25 million per year.

In 2007, Bryant successfully ran for lieutenant governor, hammering illegal immigration as a major theme. In one television ad he told voters: "I'm going to lead the charge to stop illegal immigration in Mississippi."

Bryant handily defeated a Democratic opponent.

Hunt took MFIRE online; he said he had signed up about 220 members on his website. They pushed lawmakers to pass a law that made Mississippi one of the first states to require employers to check employees' immigration status against the federal E-Verify database.

Hunt concedes that some people have been attracted to his cause for the wrong reasons. And there is some fodder for those Mississippians inclined to question MFIRE's intentions.

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