Immigrants rights advocates cry foul, vow they will continue to fight
Leah Rupp | Clarion Ledger
March 18, 2008
Companies in Mississippi soon will be required to use a federal pilot program called eVerify to determine whether potential workers are legal U.S. residents, under a bill Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law Monday.
But shortly after he signed off on Senate Bill 2988, Barbour cautioned that the language needs some alterations, including adding more avenues for companies to check the residency status of new hires.
Key supporters of the legislation say any changes will have to wait until next year though. Immigrants rights advocates say they'll continue to fight the new law they call a racist attempt to drive Hispanics from the state.
Other critics maintain the bill, along with another one Barbour signed Monday enhancing the penalty for home invasions, could be costly as they will bloat the prisons.
"Any employer who knowingly hires an illegal alien should be held accountable," Barbour said.
But, he continued, "I have serious concerns ... the bill could have unintended negative consequences. I urge the Legislature to make the necessary technical changes to ensure this bill will have the intended effect."
Under the legislation, larger companies would be required to begin using the eVerify system first, with compliance deadlines as early as July.
Penalties for the employer could include the cancellation of state or public contracts.
Companies also could be prohibited from bidding on any such contracts for up to three years.
Those convicted of violating the new law could be sentenced to up to five years in prison or fined up to $10,000. The illegal immigrant also would be deported.
State Sen. Michael Watson, one of the principal authors of the bill, said he doesn't think lawmakers can grant Barbour's wishes for changes in the law this session. "Maybe next year," Watson, R-Pascagoula, said.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant - who has made cracking down on illegal immigration one of his key issues - agreed, saying in a statement that he would "work in future sessions to address (Barbour's) recommendations."
Changing the law at this point during the session would require suspending the legislative rules to bring up a new bill - which requires a two-thirds vote - then passing it in both chambers.
Immigrants rights advocates fear that the new law could lead to increased racial profiling and hamper economic development.
"The governor basically whines in the statement about all the problems with the eVerify system," said Bill Chandler, of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. "Just on the face of that, he shouldn't have signed this bill into law. But he is silent on how racist this bill is, criminalizing people who are working."
The Washington-based Pew Research Center estimates there are up to 50,000 undocumented immigrants living in Mississippi. The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, however, estimates the number to be 200,000. In 1990, Pew estimates there were about 5,000.
Six other immigration-related bills are expected to die in a House committee today.
Another bill signed by Barbour on Monday would increase the penalty from no less than three years in prison to no less than 10 years for breaking into a home where people are present.
Sen. David Blount, primary author of Senate Bill 2622, said the governor's support "sends a strong statement that Mississippians have a right to be safe in their homes."
In 2007, there were 2,563 reported house burglaries in the city, based on Jackson Police Department weekly crime data. In the past, officials at the department have said a "very minute" number of those would be considered home invasions.
In 2006, several home invasions in Jackson made headlines, causing concern among residents in the metro area.
Some worry that bill and others that increase the penalty for crimes, such as the immigration bill, will increase prison populations.
"(The Legislature) sometimes passes these feel-good things without thinking about what it's going to cost," said Ron Welch, a prisoners' rights attorney. "Somebody is going to have to pay - and that'll likely be public services across the board."
Blount said he hoped other bills, such as one that is pending that would grant some nonviolent offenders parole, would cut down on the number of people in prison.
"We need to keep people who are violent and a threat to public safety in prison," Blount, D-Jackson, said.
Going along with that, he said, "we need to give people who are not a threat to the public a chance to straighten out their lives."