Frank Curiel (R), an organizer for the Laborers Union and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, talks with Samuel Holguin, owner of the La Veracruzana market in Laurel, MS. Photo credit: David Bacon.
In early April, an anti-immigrant bill like those that swept through legislatures in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina was stopped cold in Mississippi. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Tea Party Republicans were confident they’d roll over any opposition. They’d brought Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who co-authored Arizona’s SB 1070, into Jackson, to push for the Mississippi bill. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which designs and introduces similar bills into legislatures across the country, had its agents on the scene.
Their timing seemed unbeatable. Last November Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction. Mississippi was one of the last Southern states in which Democrats controlled the legislature, and the turnover is a final triumph of Reagan and Nixon’s Southern Strategy. And the Republicans who took power weren’t just any Republicans. Haley Barbour, now ironically considered a “moderate Republican,” had stepped down as governor. Voters replaced him with an anti-immigrant successor, Phil Bryant, whose venom toward the foreign-born rivals Lou Dobbs.
Yet the seemingly inevitable didn’t happen.
Instead, from the opening of the legislative session just after New Years, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus fought a dogged rearguard war in the House. Over the last decade the caucus acquired a hard-won expertise on immigration, defeating over two hundred anti-immigrant measures. After New Year’s, though, they lost the crucial committee chairmanships that made it possible for them to kill those earlier bills. But they did not lose their voice.
“We forced a great debate in the House, until 1:30 in the morning,” says state Representative Jim Evans, caucus leader and still AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi. “When you have a prolonged debate like that, it shows the widespread concern and disagreement. People began to see the ugliness in this measure.”
Like all of Kobach’s and ALEC’s bills, HB 488 stated its intent in its first section: “to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state agencies and local governments.” In other words, to make life so difficult and unpleasant for undocumented people that they’d leave the state. And to that end, it said people without papers wouldn’t be able to get as much as a bicycle license or library card, and that schools had to inform on the immigration status of their students. It mandated that police verify the immigration status of anyone they arrest, an open invitation to racial profiling.
“The night HB 488 came to the floor, many black legislators spoke against it,” reports Bill Chandler, director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, “including some who’d never spoken out on immigration before. One objected to the use of the term ‘illegal alien’ in its language, while others said it justified breaking up families and ethnic cleansing.” Even many white legislators were inspired to speak against it.
Nevertheless, the bill was rammed through the House. Then it reached the Senate, controlled by Republicans for some years, and presided over by a more moderate Republican, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. Reeves could see the widespread opposition to the bill, even among employers, and was less in lock step with the Tea Party’s anti-immigrant agenda than other Republicans. Although Democrats had just lost all their committee chairmanships in the house, Reeves appointed a rural Democrat to chair one of the Senate’s two judiciary committees. He then sent that bill to that committee, chaired by Hob Bryan. And Bryan killed it.