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Tough anti-illegal-immigration law dies in Mississippi

April 03, 2012|By Richard Fausset
  • Omy Morris of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance joined others in Jackson, Miss., in February to protest a proposed law to crack down on illegal immigration in the state.
Omy Morris of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance joined others… (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated…)

ATLANTA -- Mississippi's controversial illegal immigration crackdown bill died in a state Senate committee Tuesday, bucking a trend in Deep South states for more-stringent enforcement efforts.

Reportedly still afoot, however, are other legislative maneuvers to get the core elements of the bill onto the desk of recently elected Gov. Phil Bryant, a strong supporter of an Arizona-style immigration law. Pro-immigrant groups say they are not ready to declare victory until the legislative session ends next month.

"The war continues -- that's the reality," Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, said in an interview. "I'm sure if we're successful in killing this monster, it's going to come up again in some other form."

The bill, HB 488, passed the state House last month, but died quietly in a state Senate judiciary committee chaired by a Democrat.

It was tough news for conservative Republicans who thought the bill had a good chance of passage. After the failure of a similar bill last session, the GOP, in November elections, secured control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. The Republican Bryant, meanwhile, was swept into the governor's office on a strong anti-illegal-immigration platform.

Opposition to the bill came not only from liberals and civil rights groups, but from business groups as well, including the Farm Bureau and the Mississippi Poultry Assn., which worried a crackdown would damage the state economy.

The state's rules of governance also came into play. In Mississippi, senate committee chairs are appointed by the lieutenant governor. The current holder of that position, Republican Tate Reeves, had appointed a Democrat to as chairman of the judiciary committee, and it was that Democrat -- Hob Bryan, a University of Virginia-educated attorney from the town Amory, Miss. -- who finished off the bill by not putting it up to a committee vote.   

Bryan could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening. But Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Reeves, indicated that not all of the self-proclaimed conservatives in the state were on the same page.

"Lt. Gov. Reeves believes we need to do something to rid our state of illegal immigrants, but he respects the fact that the chairman listened to concerns expressed by the Mississippi Economic Council, Farm Bureau, the Mississippi Poultry Assn., and local cities, counties, police chiefs and sheriffs, about the potential impact of this bill on taxpayers," Hipp said in a statement.

On Tuesday evening, Reeves' conservative credentials were called into question by Rodney Hunt, the head of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, and a high-profile member of the Mississippi Tea Party.

"We're very disappointed," Hunt told the Los Angeles Times. "With the Tea Party this year, our No. 1 issue and legislative priority was illegal immigration."   

The bill had already had some of the toughest provisions removed, including one that would require school officials to count illegal immigrant students. But other provisions remained that supporters said would help discourage illegal immigrants from staying in the state, including new rules that would make it more difficult for businesses to hire them.

The Associated Press reports that key elements of the immigration bill have been inserted into another piece of legislation, still alive in their chamber, that deals with the issue of counterfeit goods, though the maneuver may fall victim to rules that are intended to limit such shoehorning.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that Mississippi, with a total population of 3 million, has 20,000 to 70,000 illegal immigrants living within its borders.

Strict illegal immigration laws have passed in recent months in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, as conservatives looked for ways to deal with the issue in the face of perceived inaction by Washington. All of those laws have been challenged in federal court.

Some clarity on states' ability to implement such laws will likely come after the U.S. Supreme Court hears challenges to Arizona's 2010 immigration crackdown bill, SB 1070, this month.

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