Bill to study immigrant impact on poverty may die

Published 12:37 am Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Some Mississippi lawmakers believe it’s vital to determine the impact immigration has on Mississippi’s persistent poverty, but legislation to create a task force for the study may not survive Tuesday’s deadline.

House Select Poverty Committee Chairwoman Reecy Dickson, a Democrat from Macon, authored the bill for a task force made up of legislators, officials from state agencies and an immigrants’ rights representative. The panel would study the economic impact of immigrants, including how much it costs the state to provide healthcare, education and other benefits.

The bill passed the House, but Senate Judiciary A Chairman Joey Fillingane said he doubts it will make it out of his committee. General bills are under a Tuesday deadline for committee action.

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Fillingane said the state’s financial situation will prohibit any new programs this session. Revenue collections have been below expectations so far this year and Gov. Haley Barbour already has had to cut state agencies to balance the budget. Also, it’s unclear how the state’s $2.8 billion share of the federal stimulus package will be spent.

“The second point would be if you’re talking about how illegal immigration will affect poverty, I just don’t think that legislation is going to help us anyway,” Fillingane said. “The bottom line is they shouldn’t be here. They should go back to their home country and we shouldn’t be looking at it beyond that.”

There’s an estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants in the state, said Patricia Ice, an attorney with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. The majority are Latino, she said.

Mississippi has the nation’s highest poverty rate at 20.6 percent.

Dickson, whose bill does not reference illegal immigrants, said an increasing immigrant population relies heavily on state-funded services, including healthcare and education. She said the task force’s job would be to make recommendations about policy changes that could improve opportunities for immigrants who may be living in poverty.

“If we don’t face the changes, we are going to constantly be behind,” Dickson said.

The panel could have trouble collecting the data. For example, the state Department of Human Services doesn’t track whether immigrants receive services from the agency, said Executive Director Don Thompson.

“At this time, the federal government does not require collection of data that segregates immigrant populations seeking many of the services we administer and further has changed some policies which would make extraction of this type of data even more ambiguous,” Thompson said.

Under the bill, the panel also would study the impact immigrants have on Mississippi’s workforce, particularly whether job opportunities for U.S. citizens have been diminished. The task force wouldn’t receive compensation or a legislative appropriation.

The bill is House Bill 664.