One year after Arizona’s dread SB 1070 took effect, progressives have transferred their fear and loathing to the 2011 winner in the mainstream media’s toughest-immigration-law-in-the-nation contest: Alabama’s HB 56. Its unconstitutionality and inhumanity go further than Arizona’s law by requiring children to prove legal residence before enrolling in public school and making it a crime to give an undocumented person a ride in your car.
The good news is that Alabama and Arizona are still immigration policy outliers. While legislators in at least twenty-four states filed Arizona-like legislation this year, just five—Alabama, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana—passed watered-down versions of SB 1070. In many states—Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Nebraska and, most triumphantly, Mississippi—the threat of a viral SB 1070 has engendered and strengthened coalitions between immigrant supporters and African-American elected leaders who have played visible, pivotal roles in opposing, softening and defeating Arizona copycats.
“It is a new kind of Southern strategy,” says James Evans, a five-term Mississippi state representative, AFL-CIO organizer, minister and leading member of the legislative black caucus.
“This is a fight against a kind of venom that black people in Mississippi understand on that heart level,” Evans says, tapping his heart. “But this is hearts and minds working together. Walking together is how we all win, now and further down this long road.”
Richard Nixon pioneered the old Southern strategy, through which Republicans pandered to racism and won over Southern white Democrats disaffected after desegregation and civil rights legislation. Now, though, Latinos’ growing presence and electoral clout in the South and other regions, coupled with the moral authority of civil rights, has yielded a new game plan. This one depends not on racial and cultural division but on unity. In Mississippi, a methodically constructed alliance of African-Americans, immigrants and their supporters has grown downright formidable and, Evans suggests, “can help show the country a better way, a path to higher ground.”
It hardly happened overnight. But in the past few years, Mississippi activists’ formula of visible black and immigrant partnership, within a “workers’ rights/civil rights” frame, abetted by dogged labor organizing, has added up to visible success.
In the 2011 legislative session, Mississippi lawmakers introduced thirty-three bills that sought to make it easier to deport immigrants or else make life more difficult for them. This included a bill that would have denied undocumented people access to public benefits (which is already prohibited under federal law), one that would have restricted immigrants’ ability to rent apartments (federal courts have ruled similar bans unconstitutional) and another that would have mandated “English-only” in conducting government business. By April, all the bills were dead. This included an Arizona copycat, SB 2179—which, after it passed both chambers, advocates had assumed was unstoppable. The bill would have made it a crime to fail to carry immigration papers and would have authorized state, county and local police to determine the immigration status of a person during a “stop, detention or arrest.” The bill went further than Arizona’s by allowing for immigration checks during traffic stops. The version that passed the Mississippi State Senate would even have allowed people to sue municipalities or law enforcement officials for failure to enforce immigration laws. Through legislative legerdemain, Democratic members in the House, led by black caucus member Edward Blackmon Jr. and Willie Bailey, a Judiciary Committee chair, killed the bill.