By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The state Senate took the first step Thursday to pass a bill to give state and local law enforcement mandates to pursue people they believe are in Mississippi illegally.
A similar law has been found unconstitutional in Arizona and is expected to be ultimately argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The legislation, called the Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, was passed Thursday by the Senate Judiciary A Committee after what was at times emotional debate and is expected to be debated on the Senate floor in the coming days.
This past summer, soon after federal courts ruled the Arizona law unconstitutional, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, pledged to take up similar legislation here.
The bill would, among other things, require law enforcement to check immigration status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally if they stop the person for another reason, such as a traffic violation, a faulty tail light, loitering or a more serious crime.
Some members of the Judiciary A Committee asked how much it would cost to enforce the bill. Judiciary A Chair Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, the primary author of the legislation, acknowledged there would be additional costs to the attorney general’s office, local law enforcement and perhaps the Department of Public Safety.
He said Steve Simpson, the commissioner of Public Safety, said it would help enforcement of the bill if the Legislature created a new documents division within his agency.
But Fillingane said federal officials are available to check documents to determine their authenticity.
As far as the other costs, he said, “We all understand there will be additional costs … I guess my response is, what is the cost of not doing anything about this problem? We are already experiencing a tremendous amount of costs.”
For instance, Fillingane said the children of illegal immigrants are educated in public schools and can receive medical treatment in hospitals in the state.
Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-McComb, one of the few committee members to vote against the proposal, said he is concerned about the costs and about the possibility of profiling.
“I have boys. I have nephews. I have church members who go through this today,” Butler said in an emotional speech referring to profiling. If the bill becomes law, “you will see … profiling.”
Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said, “We went to great lengths to make sure profiling is not part of this bill.”
Asked how law enforcement could determine whether a person might be an illegal immigrant, Fillingane cited a language barrier or accent.
Courts in Arizona struck down the law there, saying it is the authority of the federal government, not the states, to enforce immigration law.
The bill also gives the attorney general’s office the primary responsibility to ensure that employers check the federal E-Verify database to determine whether a potential employee is legal.
The bill is getting considerable attention. On Wednesday, scores of people opposing the legislation rallied at the Capitol. On Thursday, several supporters of the legislation, many with the Tea Party, watched and applauded as the bill was passed out of committee.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.