Yizel Contraras Torres, 13, speaks to the crowd about her right to live in the U.S. as an immigrant.

Immigrants, state employees and their advocates told the Mississippi Legislature Wednesday afternoon that they deserved the right to live in the state, earn a fair wage and be treated with respect.

Representatives with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Association, Mississippi Alliance of State Employees and United Auto Workers took advantage of “Civic Engagement Day” at the Capitol to voice their concerns and displeasure with recent actions taken by the Legislature and President Donald Trump.

“We stand firm in our opposition to the many anti-immigrant and refugee proposals introduced into the 2017 Mississippi legislative session,” said MIRA executive director Bill Chandler.

Chandler said Trump’s recent actions as president have emboldened legislators to push “their own racist agenda.”

On Wednesday, Trump signed executive actions to begin the construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. A separate action would block federal funding to “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with immigration authorities.

In the Legislature, numerous bills have been introduced that would affect immigrants. The topics range from requiring state agencies to verify the legal status of people applying for public benefits, authorizing the state Attorney General to seek reimbursement from the federal government for costs the state incurs dealing with illegal immigration, and prohibiting Mississippi agencies, universities or towns from adopting sanctuary policies for refugees.

According to U.S. census data, 2.3 percent of Mississippi’s population from 2011 to 2015 was comprised of foreign-born persons, meaning they were not citizens at birth.

Laura Cabrera, an immigrant, originally from Mexico, addressed the crowd during event Wednesday with tears in her eyes. In Spanish, she told the audience she was speaking as a wife, a mother and woman to defend her rights and ask the Legislature to stop introducing anti-immigration bills.

Cabrera told Mississippi Today through a translator that she was concerned about the actions Trump may take as president and she hopes that she and people like her won’t be discriminated against.

“They say this is a country of immigrants. Some people say that just because we are Mexicans we are not supposed to be here,” 13-year-old Yizel Contraras Torres said during the event. “But we are immigrants too.”

The rights of Mississippi workers was also raised during the event. MASE executive director Brenda Scott called upon the community to play an active role in the legislative process by watching how their legislators vote, visiting the Capitol and speaking out about issues that matter.

“There’s a lot of documented (citizens) … not holding this elected leadership and both houses accountable to the standard of living for Mississippians,” Scott said.

She told the crowd about some of the issues facing state workers include unsafe working conditions, low wages and unreasonable and uncompensated hours.

“In the public sector, our workers depend on their elected officials to take the appropriate measure to provide the necessary tools in order to serve the public,” Scott said.

At least one legislator participated in the press conference.

Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, told the audience about a few of the bills she’s introduced, including House Bill 212, which would allow undocumented students to attend college at in-state tuition rates. House Bill 187 would increase annual compensation for state employees who earn less than $50,000 a year. Sykes has filed multiple bills that deal with worker’s rights.


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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.