Tuesday, May 6, 2008


By David Bacon

JACKSON, MS (4/20/08) - On March 17, Mississippi Governor Hayley
Barbour signed into law the farthest-reaching employer sanctions law
of any on the books in the U.S. Employer sanctions is a shorthand
name for laws that prohibit employers from hiring immigrants who
don't have legal immigration status in the U.S. That provision was
part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed by Congress in
1986, which for the first time in U.S. history required employers to
verify the immigration status of employees.

The Mississippi bill, SB 2988, requires employers to use an
electronic system to verify immigration status, called E-Verify.
That system has only recently been developed by the Department of
Homeland Security, and by the department's own admission, is not a
complete record. Its accuracy is unknown, but by comparison, the
Social Security database of U.S. workers, compiled since the 1930s,
contains millions of errors.

The Mississippi bill goes much further, however. Employers are
absolved from any liability for hiring undocumented workers so long
as they use the E-Verify system. But it will become a felony for an
undocumented worker to hold a job. Anyone caught "shall be subject
to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for
not less than one (1) year nor more than five (5) years, a fine of
not less than one thousand dollars ($1000) nor more than ten thousand
dollars ($10,000) or both." Anyone charged with the crime of working
without papers will not be eligible for bail. The law is set to
become effective for large employers on July 1.

In the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, University of Mississippi journalism
professor Joe Atkins called the law "a new xenophobia...that
threatens once again to lock down the state's borders and resurrect
the 'closed society' that once made it the shame of the nation."
According to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, the bill got
the support of many Democratic state legislators because party
leaders "wanted the house to bring out at least one bill dealing with
immigration to relieve the political pressure being put on members
(i.e. white Democrats), by right-wing forces in their districts.
Many Black Caucus members were persuaded to go along. Unfortunately
the bill they brought out was the worst of the six the Mississippi
Senate passed."

Passage of the bill was a setback to the political strategy that has
shown the most promise of changing the old conservative power
structure in the state, the "closed society" described by Professor
Atkins. That strategy, building over the last several years, has
relied on creating an electoral base of African Americans, immigrants
and unions. The new employer sanctions law, according to supporters
of that strategy, is intended to drive immigrants out of the state by
making it impossible for them to find work.

In Mississippi African American political leaders, and immigrant and
labor organizers have cooperated in organizing one of the country's
most active immigrant rights coalitions - the Mississippi Immigrant
Rights Alliance. They see hope for political transformation in the
demographic changes sweeping the south. Beginning before World War
2, Mississippi, like most southern states, began to lose its Black
population. Out-migration reached its peak in the 60s, when 66,614
African Americans left between 1965 and 1970, while civil rights
activists were murdered, hosed and went to jail. But in the
following decades, Midwest industrial jobs began to vanish overseas,
the cost of living in northern cities skyrocketed, and the flow began
to reverse.

From 1995 to 2000, the state capital, Jackson, gained 3600 Black
residents. In the 2000 census, African Americans made up over 36% of
Mississippi's 2.8 million residents - no doubt more today. And while
immigrants were statistically insignificant two decades ago, today
they're over 4.5% of the total, according to news reports.
"Immigrants are always undercounted, but I think they're now about
130,000, and they'll be 10% of the population ten years from now,"
predicts MIRA Director Bill Chandler.

"We have the chance here to avoid the rivalry that plagues Los
Angeles, and build real power," says Chandler. Erik Fleming, a MIRA
staff member and former state legislator who recently filed for the
Democratic nomination for the Senate seat held by Thad Cochrane,
believes "we can stop Mississippi from making the same mistakes
others have made."

The same calculus can apply across the South, which is now the entry
point for a third of all new immigrants to the U.S. Four decades
ago, President Richard Nixon brought its white power structure,
threatened by civil rights, into the Republican Party. President
Ronald Reagan celebrated that achievement at the Confederate monument
at Georgia's Stone Mountain. MIRA-type alliances could transform the
region, and change the politics of the country as a whole. SB 2988
is not only intended to stir anti-immigrant sentiment, but to reverse
that demographic change and the political transformation it might
make possible.

MIRA is the fruit of strategic thinking among a diverse group that
reaches from African American workers' centers on catfish farms and
immigrant union organizers in chicken plants to guest workers and
contract laborers on the Gulf Coast, and ultimately, into the halls
of the state legislature in Jackson. Activists look back to changes
that started when Mississippi passed a law permitting casino
development in 1991, bringing the first immigrant construction
workers from Florida. Employers in gaming then began to use
contractors to supply their growing labor needs. Guest workers,
eventually numbering in the thousands, were brought under the H2-B
program to fill many of the jobs development created.

Through the 90s more immigrants arrived looking for work. Some guest
workers overstayed their visas, while husbands brought wives, cousins
and friends from home. Mexicans and Central Americans joined South
and Southeast Asians, and began traveling north through the state,
getting jobs in rural poultry plants. There they met African
Americans, many of whom had fought hard campaigns to organize unions
for chicken and catfish workers over the preceding decade.

It was not easy for newcomers to fit in. Their union
representatives didn't speak their languages. When workers got
pulled over by state troopers they found themselves, not only cited
for lacking drivers' licenses, but also often handed over to the
Border Patrol. Sometimes their children weren't even allowed to
enroll in school.

In the fall of 2000, labor, church and civil rights activists formed
an impromptu coalition, and went to the legislature. At their heart
was the core of activists who'd organized Mississippi's state
workers, and a growing caucus of Black legislators sympathetic to
labor. Jim Evans, a former organizer for the National Football
League Players Association, helped lead the group on the House side,
while Senator Alice Harden, who'd led a state teachers' strike in
1986, organized the vote in the Senate. "We decided that the place
to start was trying to get a bill passed allowing everyone to get
drivers' licenses, regardless of who they were or where they came
from," Evans remembers.

Harden's efforts bore fruit when the drivers' license bill passed the
Senate unanimously in 2001. "But they saw us coming in the House, and
killed it," Chandler says. Nevertheless, the close fight convinced
them that a coalition supporting immigrant rights had a wide
potential base of support, and could help change the state's
political landscape. In a meeting that November, the Mississippi
Immigrant Rights Alliance was born.

To build a grassroots base, MIRA volunteers went into chicken plants
to help recruit newly-arrived immigrants into unions. In the
casinos, MIRA volunteers worked with UNITE HERE organizers. In
Jackson, the coalition got 6 bills passed the following year,
stopping schools from requiring Social Security numbers from
immigrant parents, and winning in-state tuition for any student who'd
spent four years in a Mississippi high school.

Then Katrina hit the Gulf. MIRA fought evictions and the cases of
workers cheated by employers, and eventually recovered over a million
dollars. MIRA organizer Vicky Cintra and other activists
participated in several celebrated cases defending guest workers,
especially in the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula.
"There's still a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment here," Cintra says,
"but when people give the police their MIRA ID card they get treated
with more respect, because they know their rights and have some
support." Laborers Union organizer Frank Curiel says, "In Kentucky,
outside of Louisville, Latinos are afraid to go out into the street.
In Mississippi it's different."

Not always that different, however. In Laurel and many other
Mississippi towns police still set up roadblocks to trap immigrants
without licenses. "They take us away in handcuffs and we have to pay
over $1000 to get out of jail and get our cars back," according to
chicken plant worker Elisa Reyes. And the way the state's Council of
Conservative Citizens demonizes immigrants is reminiscent of the
language of its predecessor - the White Citizens Councils: "The
CofCC Not only fights for European rights, but also for Confederate
Heritage, fights against illegal immigration, Fights against gun
control, fights against abortion, fights against gay rights etc. SO
JOIN UP!!!" its website urges.

In 2007 the Republican machine introduced twenty-one anti-immigrant
bills into the state legislature, including ones to impose state
penalties for hiring undocumented workers and English-only
requirements on state license and benefit applicants, to prohibit
undocumented students at state universities, and to require local
police to check immigration status. MIRA defeated all of them. "The
Black Caucus stood behind us every time," Evans says proudly. There
are no immigrant or Latino legislators. Without the Caucus all 21
bills would have passed in 2007, and 19 similar bills in 2006.

The 2008 legislative session was different, however. Chandler
describes three factions in the party - the Black Caucus at one end,
white conservatives hanging on at the other, and "liberals who will
do whatever they have to do to get elected" in the middle. After
some Democratic candidates campaigned in 2007 on an anti-immigrant
platform, MIRA wrote a letter in protest to Howard Dean, national
chair of the Democratic Party. Those tactics, it said, were
undermining the only strategy capable of changing the state's
politics. "The attacks on Latinos, initiated by Republican Phil
Bryant a year and a half ago, and joined by other Republicans, are
now being echoed by Democrats like John Arthur Eaves and Jamie
Franks," the letter said. State party leaders who "would go along to
be accepted, rather than show the courage necessary for positive
change... are peddling racist lies against immigrants that violate
the core of the party's progressive agenda."

Anti-immigrant campaigning by Democrats was unsuccessful.
Conservative Republican Hayley Barbour was returned to the governor's
mansion and Phil Bryant was elected lieutenant governor. And in the
legislative session that followed, some Democrats began to buckle
under pressure from vocal rightwing groups, including the Klan.

During the 2007 elections the Ku Klux Klan held a rally of 500 people
in front of the Lee County court house in Tupelo, wearing white hoods
and robes, and carrying signs saying, "Stop the Latino Invasion."
Their presence was so intimidating that Ricky Cummings, a generally
progressive Democrat running for re-election to the State House of
Representatives, voted for some of the anti-immigrant bills in the
legislature. When MIRA leaders challenged him, he told them that
Klan-generated calls had "worn out his cell phone."

The Klan's website says "it's time to declare war on these illegal
Mexicans .. The racial war is among us, will you fight with us for
the future of our race and for our children? Or will you sit on your
ass and do nothing? Our blissful ignorance is over. It is time to
fight. Time for Mexico and Mexicans to get the hell out!"

The web site has links to the site of the Mississippi Federation for
Immigration Reform and Enforcement (the state affiliate of the
Federation for American Immigration Reform), directed by Mike Lott,
who sat in the state legislature before being defeated in a run for
the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State. .After MIRA's Erik
Fleming urged Governor Barbour to veto the employer sanctions bill,
saying it would be "devastating to our economy and community here in
Mississippi," he was then targeted on the MFIRE website.

For those threatened by changing demographics, and the political
upsurge they might produce, SB 2988 law is a finger in the dike. The
fight to implement it is not over, however, and MIRA has assembled a
legal team to challenge its constitutionality in court.

David Bacon, Photographs and Stories


1 comment:

Lenin said...

The web site has links to the site of the Mississippi Federation for
Immigration Reform and Enforcement (the state affiliate of the
Federation for American Immigration Reform), directed by Mike Lott,
who sat in the state legislature before being defeated in a run for
the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State.

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