SID SALTER: Minority numbers drive immigration as a campaign issue

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – With statewide elections slated later this year and federal elections a year later, Mississippi voters who believe they won’t be hearing more about immigration over the next 18 months aren’t correctly reading the tea leaves.
But while Republicans are talking about immigration in Mississippi’s 2011 state elections, don’t look for the national GOP to be drawn into a serious debate over immigration at the level of federal elections and particularly in the 2012 presidential elections.
Incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama wants to talk about immigration reform. In recent speeches this week, Obama repeated his call 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.” Clearly, it will be part of President Obama’s re-election strategy to draw bright-line distinctions between his immigration proposals and that of potential Republicans challengers.
Mainstream Republican presidential contenders can ill afford to write off 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 Republicans more closely aligned philosophically with Tea Party Republicans rather than the mainstream GOP will forsake them in the primaries. Congressional candidates in those states face the same political dynamics.
Arizona-style anti-immigration laws failed to pass the Mississippi Legislature in 2011. House Democrats refused to adopt legislation approved by Senate Republicans. State lawmakers were slammed by the Mississippi Municipal League and the Mississippi Association of Supervisors for what they saw as efforts by the Legislature to expose local governments and law enforcement entities to lawsuits over federal immigration law enforcement by local governments. Local governments also called the Senate version an “unfunded mandate” and questioned where funding for the additional enforcement would come from. Some said it would necessitate local tax increases.
Conservatives in Mississippi will continue to campaign on immigration reform and promises to adopt tough new immigration enforcement laws at the state level will continue.
Public education will likely fuel the next round of anti-immigration legislation in Mississippi. At the K-12 level, the results of a 2010 Southern Education Foundation report 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 predicts that the rest of the nation will follow suit by 2020 as minority students exceed 50 percent of national public school enrollment.
The 2010 report notes 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. The Southern Education Foundation suggests that other influences than “white flight” are at play. Four states – Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – have a majority of both poor and minority pupils in their states’ public school systems.
In higher education, the flashpoint issue will be the growing national debate over whether universities should grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. Some 12 states that allow that include Texas, California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. While Mississippi universities have no such policies currently, it’s a lock that some legislation will propose a solution to the “illegal immigration in-state tuition problem” during the campaign.
In truth, the problem of illegal immigration in Mississippi is not yet comparable to the problems encountered in Texas or California. In truth, state laws regarding immigration are little more than window dressing, since immigration law is federal law.
But don’t look for some politicians to let that fact get in the way of a good campaign issue.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at ssalter@library.msstate.edU.