August 24, 2012 12:20:28 PM
JACKSON -- Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is ordering state agencies not to provide public benefits to immigrants receiving deferred deportation status from the federal government -- an order that reinforces current state law.
Legislators, meanwhile, held a lengthy public hearing Thursday about whether Mississippi should enact a new law allowing law officers to check people's immigration status during traffic stops or other encounters, similar to laws in Arizona and Alabama.
The House Judiciary B Committee met for more than four hours and heard a wide range of opinions. Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said the group might meet again before the 2013 session begins in January.
Maria Mazy, 19, told lawmakers she was born in Mexico and has lived in the United States for several years, graduating in 2011 from Clinton High School outside Jackson. She also became a U.S. citizen last year. She said she worries a state enforcement law would frighten immigrants, including some of her friends.
"It will destroy the peace and tranquility that me and my family now enjoy," said Mazy, now a community college student.
Thomas Ray Floyd, owner of a small construction firm in central Mississippi, said he finds himself at a competitive disadvantage because other firms hire workers who are in the U.S. illegally and pay them substandard wages. He said he's against checkpoints and he doesn't want to deprive people of their God-given rights, but he wants state officials to do something.
"I run a legal and ethical business," Floyd said.
Bryant, a Republican, issued an executive order hours before the committee met. He has received support from tea party groups for years by saying he wants to tighten immigration enforcement because he believes the federal government has done a poor job.
President Barack Obama recently issued an executive order that defers deportation for immigrants who are 30 or younger and entered the U.S. before they were 16. Such immigrants can apply for work permits.
Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed an executive order Aug. 15, the day Obama's order took effect, telling state agencies not to give driver's licenses or other benefits to illegal immigrants who obtain work authorizations under the deferred status. Arizona already has one of the toughest immigration-enforcement laws in the country, and Bryant has cited it as a model of what he'd like to see in Mississippi.
"Illegal immigration has real consequences for Mississippi, as it puts additional burdens on our already stretched budget," Bryant said in a news release. "This executive order will help ensure that public benefits go to only those persons who are lawfully eligible."
He said the executive order "does not change or modify Mississippi law," which already bans state agencies from providing unemployment payments, food stamps or other benefits to people who are in the United States illegally.
Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, said Bryant's executive order might eventually be challenged in court. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said earlier this month that each state could determine whether to issue driver's licenses or extend benefits such as in-state tuition to immigrants who are granted deferred status.
"Gov. Bryant has built his political career around inciting hatred toward immigrants, particularly Latinos. ... I think that the governor is way out of line," Chandler said. "Apparently, he thinks there is a horde of Latinos who may be descending on work places in Mississippi."
Chandler said many young immigrants have grown up in Mississippi, attending local schools and taking part in the local culture.
It was not immediately clear how many people have applied for deferred status in Mississippi, although Chandler said he thinks at least 2,000 might be eligible. The state has seen an increase in the past decade of Hispanic immigrants working at poultry plants, electronics businesses and in construction. Tens of thousands of people nationwide stood in line to seek deferred status on Aug. 15, the first day applications could be made.
Republicans hold majorities in the Mississippi House and Senate. During the 2012 session, the House passed an immigration-enforcement bill but a Democratic chairman, Hob Bryan of Amory, killed the bill by choosing not to bring it up for debate in the Senate Judiciary B Committee. Bryan said the bill attempted to micromanage the way law-enforcement officers do their jobs.
The bill would've required police or deputies to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement every time they arrest someone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Law-enforcement departments that don't comply could be fined up to $5,000 per day. The bill also would've prohibited any illegal immigrant from applying for a driver's license or business license.