SID SALTER: Immigration remains a political lightning rod

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

With statewide elections looming next year and federal elections a year later, Mississippi voters can prepare for another round of electioneering that focuses on the question of illegal immigration.

The success that conservative candidates who take a hard line on immigration have enjoyed since 2010 makes immigration an A-list issue in the 2016 federal races. But Mississippi voters will hear about those issues long before those congressional races during the 2015 general election.

Immigration remains a strangely partisan issue. Nationally, Democrats welcome a debate on immigration while mainstream Republicans have begun in recent years to back away from the issue. Tea Party members in the GOP embrace the immigration debate as much as do Democrats, but from a totally different place on the political spectrum. The national GOP is still trying to avoid a serious debate over immigration at the level of federal elections and particularly in the 2016 presidential elections.

As was the case in 2012, incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama wants to talk about immigration reform. Obama has consistently called for “comprehensive immigration reform” and said that the need to address the issue was “not only an economic imperative or a security imperative, it is also a moral imperative.” In his 2012 win over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Obama’s clear re-election strategy was to draw bright-line distinctions between his immigration proposals and that of Romney.

Another thing that hasn’t changed over the last two years is that Republican presidential contenders can ill afford to write off the large Hispanic populations in key presidential battleground states like Florida, Texas and California by refusing to embrace a form of comprehensive immigration reform. But if they do, conservative Tea Party Republicans will forsake them in the primaries.

Despite President Obama’s rhetoric on immigration reform, he hasn’t been able to lead the country any close to an immigration solution than any of his predecessors from either party. Congress remains deadlocked.

The most dramatic action of late has been Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s intervention into the flood of Hispanic youth across his state’s borders. Arizona’s immigration policies have to date been rejected by Mississippi lawmakers and primarily across party lines.

But Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant went on record opposing the state of Mississippi serving as a venue to house the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied mostly Central American immigrant children who entered the U.S. illegally in the past year. Bryant told Obama in a letter: “We simply do not have the resources, the location in which to house children that come here and do not speak our language, have no relatives in Mississippi.”

Efforts to enact draconian state-level immigration laws in Mississippi have met with resistance from city and county governments who have called get-tough immigration laws “unfunded mandates” on local taxpayers.

Education is an issue that is also intertwined with immigration. With the Legislature facing an ongoing initiative effort that seeks to force lawmakers to “fully fund” the Mississippi Adequate Education Program for K-12 education, the reality is that immigrant children are part of the mix that led to the results of a 2010 Southern Education Foundation report that found that the South has become the “first region in the country where more than half of public school students are poor and more than half are members of minorities.”

The report noted that 54 percent of Mississippi’s 513,000 public school students were from minority groups – including African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other non-white groups

In higher education, the national debate grows over whether universities should grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. Some 18 states currently allow that including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. Mississippi universities have no such policies.

And despite the overriding truth that illegal immigration is a minor problem in Mississippi when compared to California, Texas and Florida, it’s enough of a problem in the minds of many to gain significant political traction.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com