Hearing shows complexity of immigration debate

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The fight over the so-called Arizona immigration law, which will be considered in Mississippi during the upcoming 2011 legislative session, is in reality a nuanced battle dealing with complex legal questions.
Not surprisingly, opponents of the law and supporters argue in generalities that are often misleading and, in some cases, inaccurate.
Supporters say the state law is needed because the federal government is not doing its job, even though statistics show that more undocumented people are being deported than ever before.
Opponents argue that the Arizona law takes the unprecedented step of making local law enforcement officials immigration agents when in reality they already can be designated to detain illegal immigrants.
Mississippi Senate Judiciary A Chair Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, held hearings on the Arizona law last week at the state Capitol.
He intends to introduce a version of the Arizona law during the 2011 session even though major portions, including the most controversial aspects of the statute, have been blocked by a judge. The issue currently is tied up in the federal court system.
Fillingane rationalized passing the law in Mississippi even though it is in legal limbo, saying the federal courts with jurisdiction over Mississippi might reach a different conclusion than the judges on the more liberal West Coast.
Fillingane concedes, however, that the issues surrounding the law ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Proposing changes
The heart of Filingame’s 17-page draft proposal states that law enforcement upon “lawful contact … where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.”
That portion of the Arizona law has been blocked by the federal courts.
But Mississippi law enforcement officers testified last week before Fillingane’s Judiciary A Committee that they already detain illegal immigrants when they are found.
There is even a federal program available to help reimburse state and local law enforcement for capturing and holding undocumented immigrants, though the money is far from enough to provide full compensation.
Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said Highway Patrol troopers will detain people who do not have a driver’s license when making a stop for another reason, such as for speeding, if the person is believed to be unlawfully in the country.
Federal immigration officials are contacted, he said, but they might choose not to respond if the person had not committed a felony crime.
Madison County Sheriff Toby Trowbridge told the committee his agency picks up one or two illegal immigrants almost every hour. He said federal officials normally pick them up from his jail within 48 hours.
He said the illegal immigration situation actually “has gotten a little better.”
If local law enforcement already can detain illegal immigrants and hold them for federal deportation hearings, why is the so-called Arizona law so controversial?
The primary, subtle change from current law is that the Arizona proposal requires local law enforcement to check for immigration status. It uses the word “shall.”
“It makes all local law enforcement immigration agents,” said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.
“It gives them extra powers that they are not trained to do.”

Federal opposition
The federal government argued in opposing the Arizona law that the nation’s immigration law should be uniform and not vary from state to state.
For instance, the federal system focuses on removing felons from the country. If the federal system is being overwhelmed by states picking up illegal immigrants, the focus on felons could be lost.
Under Fillingane’s proposal, law enforcement, when making “lawful contact,” shall check for immigration when there is “reasonable suspicion.”
Opponents said law enforcement in many jurisdictions already are stopping people of Hispanic decent just because of the way they look. They said passage of the Arizona law would only fuel that effort, though the Fillingane draft does prohibit law enforcement from relying solely on race, color or national origin.
Plus, opponents fear that illegal immigrants would be less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police if there was a chance their immigration status would be checked during “lawful contact.”
Fillingane said, “I think it is common sense if an officer is making a legal stop … to have reasonable suspicion to believe a person is here illegally if he can’t speak a word of English” and does not have other legal documentation.
Opponents, such as Lambright, testified, it would only be people who looked Hispanic who would be asked “to show me your papers.”
The Fillingane proposal also would prevent local governments from passing laws prohibiting law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status, such as Jackson recently did.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.