A crackdown on what top Mississippi lawmakers call illegal immigration looks increasingly likely as a key legislative deadline approaches.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, which provide refuge to undocumented immigrants through local ordinances and other methods.

Trump’s move follows similar promises from Mississippi leaders and a flurry of immigration legislation filed in the current legislative session. To date, lawmakers have proposed at least five immigration related bills, including measures that would punish Mississippi cities as well as colleges and universities that some say violate federal immigration law.

One such measure, House Bill 772, would penalize cities that have policies in place designed to limit cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement.

The legislation is based on a bill created by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit that writes model legislation for state legislators, that has been introduced in Mississippi in past years but unsuccessful each time.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves expressed his support for the legislation early on in the session.

“I believe no local governments or state entities have the ability to break our laws creating jurisdictions of amnesty for illegal aliens. No governmental entity, whether it’s city hall or on university campuses, is above following federal immigration law,” Reeves told reporters in early January.

In addition to the House bill, Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, introduced a version of the bill, which authorizes all Mississippi law-enforcement agencies to assist federal immigration laws. Watson also sponsored Senate Bill 2176, which would authorize Mississippi’s attorney general to seek reimbursement from the federal government for costs associated with immigration law enforcement spent by the state.

“The idea is nothing new,” Watson told Mississippi Today. “Over the years, multiple states have filed lawsuits for costs associated with the federal government not doing their job to enforce immigration laws, and more will continue to do so should this administration shirk its responsibilities.”

A question of resources

Neither version has been considered in either the House or Senate.

Sen. Watson said that if this bill does not pass during this session, the costs related to immigration would continue to be a financial burden for the state.

A 2006 report often cited in political circles, which then-Auditor Phil Bryant commissioned, estimated that the some 49,000 undocumented immigrants cost state taxpayers $25 million. Critics of Bryant’s study said it ignored contributions of immigrants, including sales tax paid and local property taxes they pay when they buy homes.

A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center report estimates the state’s undocumented population at 25,000. A 2016 Pew report states that the Mississippi’s total Hispanic population is approximately 80,000—about 3 percent of the state’s total.

However, immigration-rights advocates and some members of the law-enforcement are wary of the sanctuary-cities bill. They say the proposals are unfair and would be difficult to enforce.

Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, said that when a “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act” was first introduced in 2012, the association voiced their concerns about the additional costs needed to carry out these mandates and where the money would come from.

“It wasn’t that we were saying that didn’t want to enforce these laws,” Winter said. “This is federal law, and as a rule of thumb, local law enforcement does not enforce federal law. We pretty much focus on state law, local and county ordinances.”

Local law enforcement would need extra time, funding and resources to seek out undocumented immigrants, he said. Winter said law enforcement officials are more likely to discover a person has undocumented status while investigating other criminal activity, rather than strictly going after undocumented immigrants with the sole purpose of seeking them out.

Police departments would also need resources to identify a person’s citizenship status, such as employees, databases and access to the proper records, Winter said.

“The last thing you want to do is hold someone unreasonably or unlawfully,” Winter said.

Then, there is the cost to law enforcement of holding detainees until they are turned over to federal authorities, Winter said, which does not always happen in a timely manner. The problem in 2012 was that federal authorities were not deporting people, Winter said.

“Cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies would work fine,” Winter said. “The only thing we were saying is don’t put the burden on local law enforcement’s back to house people who are here illegally when we have robbers, burglars and murderers that we need in our jails.”

In 2010, the city of Jackson passed what it called an anti-racial-profiling ordinance that prohibits police officers from asking about suspects’ immigration status during routine traffic stops.

City of Jackson Chief of Police Lee Vance said neither bill has come across his desk, but added that his officers do not get involved in immigration issues.

“We’re not primarily responsible for enforcing immigration law,” Vance said. “If someone needs our help, we will assist them, but we’re not particularly interested in the immigration status (of suspects).”

Bill Chandler, calls bills aimed at curbing illegal immigration discriminatory. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which held a rally in the Capitol on Jan. 25 to protest immigration proposals at home and in Washington, D.C., said the Jackson ordinance has reaped positive results for immigrants and the capital city.

“The effect of it has been that the police are not bothering anybody because of what their status is,” Chandler said. “The other thing is people are moving into south Jackson and (out of) other places where they are being harassed. So it’s been a slow economic boon to the city of Jackson because people more than anything are buying bad housing and fixing them and paying property taxes.”

‘Hiding illegal immigrants’?

These bills come on the heels of President Donald Trump signing several immigration-related executive orders.

The orders call for immediate construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall; barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States; and suspending immigration for at least 30 days from a number of predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—as the government revamps its screening procedures, Trump says, to single out potential terrorists.

Julio Del Castillo, president of the Latin American Business Association, headquartered in Ridgeland, added that such bills, especially the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act,” would negatively affect the state’s business climate by scaring off potential workers, customers and taxpayers. 

On the other hand, he believes that welcoming immigrants would be a benefit to the state.

“Mississippi is ‘the Hospitality State’,” Del Castillo said. “We open doors for business and open doors for people to come here and work. That’s the main goal of Mississippi, is to increase revenues and improve life, education and housing … We need to have open business and hospitality. We need to leave it like that, and not (be) a state where people would live in fear.”

Del Castillo said the Latino and Hispanic community in Mississippi, which makes up about 3 percent of the state’s population according to 2015 census data, is diverse and come from a wide range of backgrounds, and the proposed immigration bills could cast a much wider reach than just identifying undocumented residents.

“It’s going to affect immigrants, the residents and U.S. citizens like myself in a way that we will live in fear,” Del Castillo said. “Even though I became a U.S. citizen in 1993, I’m a brown Hispanic. I would not like to live in fear, that because I’m brown I will be stopped and questioned about my immigration status. I don’t want people to live in fear.”

Julio Del Castillo, president of the Hispanic business association LABA-Link

Del Castillo said he feels the state would also need spend the money and time to train police officers so they know immigration laws, different types of documentation. He said state law enforcement should keep state law enforcement separate from federal immigration policies.

“There are more positive things from immigrants than anything,” Del Castillo said. “There are a few (bad) apples like any other community, but a high percentage of Hispanics here are mostly construction workers, business owners, working in restaurants, cleaning and maintenance, and we have a good percentage working at the (University of Mississippi Medical Center) and professional engineers working at the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) in Vicksburg.”

Nonetheless, proponents of restricting immigration in Mississippi say the proposals are about protecting the state’s borders and the rule of law.

“My hope is that the new administration will actually enforce the laws on the books, unlike the former administration that did just the opposite,” Sen. Watson said.

Contact Kendra Ablaza at kendra@mississippitoday.org. Follow her on Twitter @KendraAblaza.

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