Immigration proposal sparks legislative hearing

Published 1:11 pm Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Mississippi sheriff told state lawmakers Tuesday his deputies take illegal immigrants into custody on a nearly hourly basis, and the booking process has burdened his department.

Madison County Sheriff Toby Trowbridge told a Senate panel it’s difficult to keep track of illegal immigrants because they don’t have identification and they may use variations of their names each time they’re picked up.

“We encounter one or two people an hour in Madison County,” Trowbridge said. “It’s a security problem. Anytime you encounter anyone without identification, we view it as a homeland security problem.” Not all of them face charges in Mississippi; many are being held for immigration authorities, he said.

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The Senate Judiciary A Committee was holding hearings this week to gather information for a plan to introduce a bill like the law in Arizona that allows police officers to check the status of people they think might be in the country illegally.

Some lawmakers have said they would support such a measure during the 2011 session that starts in January. Opponents say the proposal could foster racial-profiling and harassment.

Mississippi isn’t a border state like Arizona. Officials don’t know the size of the state’s illegal immigrant population, but most agree it is far smaller than Arizona’s.

Trowbridge said the proposed law would help police and sheriff’s departments by forcing immigrants to pursue legal status and get identification. Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said he doesn’t want legislators to pass an unfunded mandate.

Simpson said state troopers routinely ask for identification after stopping someone for a violation. He said detaining illegal immigrants isn’t a “widespread” problem for troopers.

“We’re stretched very thin right now and do not need a lot of unfunded mandates on us,” Simpson said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who observed the hearing, said the federal government’s lawsuit to block Arizona’s law shouldn’t prevent Mississippi from pursuing its own legislation “that would stand up to a federal challenge.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said the hearing would help determine how the proposal could be tweaked to fit Mississippi’s needs. After the hearing, Fillingane said the proposal “had merit.”

Karla Valez, a case worker who works with immigrants for Catholic Charities, said immigrants already live in fear of being harassed. She said many would leave the state if a tougher law was enacted.

“Mississippi would be hostile,” Valez said. “They would be targeting people who don’t look white or African American.”

In recent years, many anti-immigration proposals have cleared the Republican-led Senate, but died in the Democrat-controlled House.

However, Mississippi passed a law in 2008 requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify website to check new workers’ immigration status.

Some asked during the hearings whether the law is being enforced. The state Attorney General’s Office has not received any complaints about violations, said agency spokeswoman Jan Schaefer.

Opponents of the proposal said adopting additional immigration-enforcment laws could further erode the migrant worker population.

Gene Saucier, a tree farmer and former legislator, said south Mississippi’s timber, blueberry and poultry industries depend on immigrants.

Saucier, who is a member of the Resource Conservation and Development Council for the state, said it’s been hard to find Americans who want to do the labor-intensive jobs.

Saucier and Luis Monterde, who owns a blueberry farm in Purvis, said some 100,000 pounds of blueberries rotted on the ground in the state this year because they couldn’t find workers.

They said the E-Verify law has cut into the immigrant work force and contractors are no longer providing as many immigrant workers to pick crops.

“Here we are far from the Mexican border without a drug cartel in sight … and we’re considering adopting a law like Arizona’s,” Saucier said.