Attorney says anti-immigration effort 'hysteria'

JACKSON — Critics of a proposed anti-immigration law in Mississippi called it an unfunded mandate for law enforcement and urged the state to avoid rushing to adopt a measure akin to one facing legal challenges in Arizona.

One attorney for an immigrant advocacy group also called attempted moves toward an Arizona-styled anti-immigration law a form of “hysteria” by those seeking scapegoats in an economic downturn marked by high joblessness.

Patricia Ice, legal project director for the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, told a state Senate panel on Wednesday that illegal immigrants aren’t a drain on state finances. Ice said some of the state’s illegal immigrants pay income tax and all pay sales taxes. She said she’s helped some immigrants get tax identification numbers that can be used to pay income taxes.

“We’re seeing a form of hysteria about immigrants. Because of the poor economy here, many of us have to blame someone,” Ice said during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary A Committee.

The committee held hearings this week to examine a proposal similar to the law passed in Arizona that lets law enforcement check the status of people suspected of being in the country illegally. Mississippi is among several states considering immigration-enforcement proposals modeled after Arizona’s.

Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane said the hearings were held before the session starts in January so more time could be devoted to the issue. He said the topic could be lost as lawmakers begin work on a state spending plan.

Sam Atkinson, director of performance audits at the state Auditor’s Office, said it’s difficult to calculate the state’s illegal immigrant population because few entities track that data.

Atkinson said some estimates are based federal reports, including those from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She said the auditor’s office will use the latest Census information when it is released to update a 2006 report that said illegal immigrants cost the state $25 million in medical, educational and correctional services.

The report was compiled when Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant was still the state auditor. Bryant often cites illegal immigration as a problem when he speaks at political events, including tea party meetings.

Lawmakers provided a draft of the proposed legislation, but Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said it could change by the time it’s filed next session. It is similar to the law that went into effect in Arizona earlier this year. A federal judge has struck down several provisions of the Arizona law.

Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, said he wouldn’t support the proposal next session because it would be an unfunded mandate on law enforcement.

Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, said he doesn’t think Mississippi should move forward on the proposal until the federal courts resolve the issue in Arizona.

“I think we’re being a little too hasty,” Butler said.

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press