Friday, March 16, 2012

Mississippi Lawmakers Pass Anti-Illegal Immigration Law

Joining a nationwide trend, Mississippi House members voted for a bill Thursday that seeks to crack down on undocumented immigrants. The bill, which passed with a 70-47 vote, calls for police to check the immigration status of people they arrest.

Leaders stripped more controversial provisions before the vote on House Bill 488. Next, the Republican-controlled state Senate is expected to pass it, and the governor has expressed support for the measure.

After initially failing, opponents of the bill were able on a second attempt to strip a provision requiring schools to count undocumented immigrants, saying it would violate federal law.

House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, a Braxton Republican, denied opponents' claims that the measure was racist or immoral, saying it was about enforcing the law. Gipson said he tried to craft a bill that would survive court challenges and allow charity toward migrants.

"It's about the rule of law," he told House members. "We want to say you're welcome here, we just want you to follow the proper procedures, the proper protocols."

Opponents warned families would be shattered by deportations and that the bill would reinforce outsiders' stereotypes of Mississippi. "If we pass this bill, it will set Mississippi back 60 years," said Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport. "Let us show America we are not the narrow-minded people they say we are."

No Republicans opposed the bill, while 10 mostly white and rural Democrats voted for it. They crossed party lines despite an appeal from House Agriculture Chairman Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, a rural white Democrat who warned the bill would hurt farmers.

A provision that allowed law enforcement officers to ask about a person's immigration status in a traffic stop was removed. That means someone would have to be arrested for another offense before inquiries could be made.

"If they're stopped, that in itself will not trigger this bill," Gipson said. "It would require an arrest to be made. If they are found to be unlawful, then they would be deported."

Among earlier changes was the removal of a clause that said people could be arrested for not carrying identification, a clause that had led opponents to nickname the measure the "papers, please" bill. That portion, like several others removed in committee last month, have been blocked by courts in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere.

During the debate that ran from late Wednesday into Thursday, Gipson also removed a provision that could have allowed municipal utilities to refuse power, water, sewer and other services to undocumented immigrants. Such a provision was also recently blocked by a federal court in Alabama.

Gipson said he was balancing the need to write a law that will survive court scrutiny versus the desire to remove undocumented immigrants. "I have tried to bring the best possible product to the body for a vote," he said.

The changes did little to mollify critics, who continued to question whether the bill was needed. Opponents emphasize that Mississippi doesn't need to summon any ghosts of its racist past.


Immigration chief: Proposed change is not amnesty

The federal government plans to change the rules to make it easier for some undocumented relatives of U.S. citizens to stay in this country. The nation’s top immigration official insists this is not amnesty.

Under current law, the undocumented spouse or children of a U.S. citizen can apply for what’s called a “601 waiver.” It grants permission to stay in the U.S. due to a hardship, such as an undocumented spouse providing medical care.

But the applicant had to leave the country first, then wait outside the U.S. for a hearing. The proposed new rule would allow those people to wait in the U.S.

Conservative critics label the change “amnesty.” Not so, says Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "All we are doing is making the process more efficient and more effective."

The rule does not allow undocumented immigrants to use their U.S.-born children as an "anchor" that would allow them to stay in the U.S. Only parents and spouses are eligible.

Mayorkas says few people have applied for the waiver because, if they’re turned down, they could be barred from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years. "The risk of separation is so dramatic, people who might be eligible do not take the risk of leaving the country and applying."

He also warned of "notario fraud": immigration lawyers who are scamming immigrants by telling them the proposed rule is already in effect.

The new "stay 'til you’re scheduled" rule could be in place by the end of this year.


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