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Controversial Mississippi immigration law dies in state Senate

From Joe Sutton, CNN
updated 10:58 PM EDT, Fri April 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An immigration law dies in a Mississippi state Senate committee
  • It had passed the state's house handily, and was backed by the governor
  • A sheriff says the bill had an "unfunded mandate" tied to detention expenses
  • A poultry association leader says the law would have had "negative consequences"

(CNN) -- Less than a month after handily passing Mississippi's House of Representatives, a controversial immigration law died this week in the state's Senate.

The Mississippi bill would have required police to check the immigration status of people who are arrested. It also would have prohibited any "business transactions," including renewal of drivers' licenses and obtaining business licenses, for undocumented immigrants.

Laura Hipp, spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, told CNN on Friday that "issues" with the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act "did not surface until after the bill was sent to the Senate."

Specifically, the legislation stalled in one of Senate's two judiciary committees.

That committee's chairman, Sen. Hob Bryan, "listened to concerns expressed by the Mississippi Economic Council, Farm Bureau, the Mississippi Poultry Association and local cities, counties, police chiefs and sheriffs about the potential impact of this bill on taxpayers," said Hipp. Bryan, a Democrat, cited those parties' concerns when he decided to kill the legislation, the spokeswoman added.

In mid-March, Mississippi's House of Representatives passed the bill by 70-47. That chamber and the state Senate are both controlled by Republicans. Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant are also Republicans.

Bryant backed the measure, saying he believed too little has been done on immigration policies and a crackdown is urgently needed.

"Perhaps it's boat-rocking time in Mississippi," the governor said last month, surrounded by fellow bill supporters.

Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center said it had warned Mississippi it would sue the state if the legislation were enacted.

"I would suggest that, just because the state can pass that, doesn't mean it's a good idea," said Mary Bower, the center's legal director.

In recent weeks, the bill ended up running into opposition from various sources and for various reasons.

Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan, for one, said he is "for the immigration bill" but "not for the unfunded mandate."

He cited a provision that the state would pay local authorities $20 a day to detain an undocumented immigrant, even though the daily cost is $75. He also expressed concern that his county's jail, which can house only 72 inmates, might have run out of space as might have nearby immigration detention facilities.

Neighboring Alabama has one of the strictest immigration laws in the country. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, temporarily blocked the enforcement of two provisions in the Alabama statute: one voiding contracts signed by those people who are in the United States without proper documentation and another prohibiting undocumented immigrants from making transactions with the state for services, including licenses.

Alabama is among several Southern states -- including Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia -- that passed similar immigration laws at the start of the year in the wake of a controversial law passed in Arizona in 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court plans this month to weigh a challenge to Arizona's law.

Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, said that he understands some people's frustrations with Washington over immigration policies. But he said that his organization's members already do everything "that is required of us" when it comes to checking on citizenship of their workers.

"Mississippi doesn't need to do what Alabama and Georgia has done," Leggett said. "It will have negative consequences, and image consequences, for the state."

That's already happened, Pollan said.

"I spoke to a farmer (recently), and they are already feeling the effects, because the workers are already scared," the sheriff said before the legislation died in the Senate committee.

No new bills can be introduced this legislative session, though there is nothing to stop Mississippi politicians from passing similar legislation in the future.

Reeves, the lieutenant governor, "believes we need to do something to rid our state of illegal immigrants," according to Hipp. Still, for now, that might mean focusing more on influencing policymakers in Washington than in Jackson, Mississippi.

"(Reeves) will continue to communicate with our congressional delegation about the importance of protecting our borders at the federal level, where much of the responsibility lies," said Hipp.

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