BOBBY HARRISON: Immigration battle could divide House Democrats

JACKSON – The battle over the Arizona immigration law could have impact on politics here in Mississippi – especially on the volatile state House politics.
The anticipated fight in the House over a Mississippi version of the controversial Arizona law could divide the governing Democratic coalition along racial lines right before statewide elections and in the midst of a brewing speaker’s race that will, no doubt, follow statewide elections.
Mississippi is in a unique position to be affected by the Arizona law. Like Arizona, Mississippi is a conservative state. And Mississippi is one of a handful of states that will hold statewide elections in 2011, meaning the Legislature here can take up the issue in the spring only months before the November elections.
In a majority of states holding elections this year, the legislative session already has come and gone, meaning many of those states cannot deal with the issue before going to the polls in November.
The most controversial portion of the Arizona law that requires law enforcement to check the papers of suspected illegal immigrants when stopping them for other potential violations was at least temporarily blocked from taking effect by a federal judge.
The issue is expected to be in the federal court system for a long time.
But that is not stopping some Mississippi officials, including Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both potential Republican gubernatorial candidates, from saying the state Legislature should go ahead and pass an Arizona-style law here.
They said they welcomed a lawsuit from the federal government. They did not address the costs to a poor state like Mississippi of such a lawsuit nor did they address the fact that Mississippi could easily wait to see what the legal outcome of the Arizona lawsuit is before getting involved in the issue.
But throughout its history, Mississippi leaders have been willing to expend hard-earned taxpayer funds on legal fights that are viewed as politically popular.
So it should not be surprising that the Legislature will take up the issue next year. The issue will be pushed by Republicans and will no doubt sail through the Senate where Bryant presides. But it has the potential to be an issue that divides along racial lines the governing majority of the Mississippi House.
The 122 member Mississippi House includes 72 Democrats, 37 of whom are African Americans.
Any immigration legislation most likely will be assigned to one of two Judiciary committees. Both are chaired by black members – Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, and Willie Bailey, D-Greenville. There is a good chance either chair would, as chairs do with literally scores of bills each session, opt to kill the legislation by not bringing it up for consideration.
If that happens, look for the Republicans to try to go around the chair and use parliamentary maneuvers to bring up the legislation. Based on past similar incidents, that will essentially unify the Black Caucus in opposition to the legislation.
But many white Democrats, fearing a voter backlash if they oppose the legislation, will be inclined to vote to support the Republican effort to bypass the committee process and bring the legislation up where it will most assuredly pass.
Having to deal with the divisions among his governing coalition will put House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, or any Democrats trying to assemble a similar governing coalition in a difficult situation going into the 2011 statewide elections.
What more could Republicans hope for?

Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal