'Thank God for Mississippi'

Mississippi has let HB 488, an anti-immigrant bill similar to other measures in Alabama and Arizona, die in the state Senate after it passed the House of Representatives in March.

Noel Andersen
Noel Andersen

By Rev. Noel Andersen

Mississippi has let its anti-immigrant bill, HB 488, die in the state Senate after it passed the House of Representatives in March. Thank God!

I work as Grassroots Coordinator for Immigrants’ Rights for Church World Service. CWS has been monitoring the anti-immigrant bills that have passed in several states, including Arizona and Alabama.

The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance invited me to come help galvanize CWS member denominations in the organizing efforts against HB 488.

In 2011, Phil Bryant won the governorship with a campaign that was backed by the Tea Party and the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement (M-FIRE). That group, founded by FAIR, was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007. Passing this immigration legislation, similar to Alabama’s law, was a priority for the governor’s agenda.

All Alabamians have felt the devastating impact of the anti-immigrant bill HB 56, signed into law last June. This piece of legislation has tarnished the Alabama name. It has become clear the economic cost will be astronomical as Alabama loses workers, taxpayers and consumers all at once as immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, flee the state.

Even worse is the great human cost as families are separated, racial profiling grows stronger and people live in fear. The organizing efforts to repeal HB 56 have become known at a national level, and several states that were considering such legislation have seemed to hesitate, at least during this Spring session. Most anti-immigrant bills that copy Alabama have waned in the legislative process except in Mississippi.

When I first arrived to the “Hospitality State,” it seemed certain that Mississippi would pass such harsh legislation, considering the state’s conservatism. Alabamians often say “Thank God for Mississippi” in reference to Mississippi’s even worse record than Alabama’s on civil rights.

Remnants of those racial tensions were thick as the Mississippi State House of Representatives passed HB 488, on March 15 in a late night vote (at 12:15 a.m.), with white Democrats voting with Republicans for the bill. The Black Caucus was united against HB 488, giving testimony that echoed the concern of many civil rights leaders that this legislation would increase racial profiling and bring us back in time to the type of Jim Crow laws of days past.

When I began meeting with pastors, civil rights leaders, farmers and disaster relief coordinators, many were unaware that Mississippi was heading down such a dangerous path. Even though religious leaders – including four bishops – were among the first to raise their voices against such legislation, concern hadn’t yet reached the grassroots level.

I attended meetings of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference, Catholic Lobby Day and Mississippians for Biblical Hospitality. Soon there was a buzz that the faith community had a moral responsibility to stand up on this issue, win or lose. Together we organized a clergy news conference in opposition to HB 488, and word spread around the capitol building that faith leaders were speaking out.

Soon we heard the great news that a chorus of resistance was growing against the legislation, including by representatives of the Mississippi Municipal League, the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, the Mississippi Poultry Association and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Administration. Joining them were law enforcement officials including sheriffs and police chiefs from across the state.

Our press conference at the capitol was led by religious leaders including Bishop Ward of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Latino of the Catholic Diocese, Bishop Crudup of New Horizon Church and Rev. Stan Wilson of Northside Baptist Church. Fifty clergy and lay leaders supported the event and went to meet with legislators to voice their concerns after the press conference. TV stations, radio stations and newspapers all picked up the story. The growing support across many sectors won the day as the Republican Lt. Governor referred HB 488 to Senate Judiciary B, where the Democratic chair chose not to bring up the bill for debate, letting it die a well-deserved death.

This is a tremendous victory, not just for Mississippi, but also for the entire movement against state-led anti-immigrant legislation. A win in Mississippi is amplified nationwide because of the state’s well-known conservative nature.

However, the Mississippi governor and his allies in the House have committed to calling hearings this summer as they prepare to re-introduce the same bill next session. At the same time, Alabama is struggling to move forward the repeal effort. A “tweak” bill meant to reform HB 56 just came out without substantial improvements, disappointing advocates.

So as we celebrate a short-term victory in Mississippi, the long-term struggle for immigrant rights continues.

Rev. Noel Andersen is Grassroots Coordinator for Immigrants’ Rights for Church World Service.

 

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