JACKSON — The Mississippi Senate passed a bill yesterday to let law enforcement officers check the status of people they think might be in the United States illegally.
The bill passed 34-15 after a debate that stretched on more than four hours. Several supporters of the bill, including Tea Party members, watched from the Senate galleries.
It’s unclear whether the bill would survive in the House. A committee chairman will decide whether to allow debate in the committee. If the bill passes committee, the chairman would then decide whether to bring it up for debate in the full House.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, said after questioning from opponents that it’s impossible to know how many illegal immigrants are living in Mississippi. But Fillingane said he believes enacting a law would safeguard Americans’ jobs, make the state safer and protect taxpayers providing education, health benefits or other services to people who aren’t authorized to be in the country.
Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, asked Fillingane: “Are you saying to me we’re debating this important bill and we don’t know if we have an immigration problem or not?”
Fillingane cited a 2006 state auditor’s report that estimated about 49,000 illegal immigrants were living in Mississippi. Fillingane said estimates differ on how many might live in the state now.
“There’s no way to get an exact number. They’re all estimates,” said Fillingane, who chairs the Senate Judiciary A Committee and explained the bill to his colleagues.
The bill — styled after an Arizona law that took effect in 2010 — says an officer could check a person’s immigration status during traffic stops or other encounters, if the officer suspects the person might not have permission to be in the United States.
Supporters said the bill would help keep out people who are living or working in the U.S. without proper documents.
Opponents said the bill amounts to xenophobic pandering during a year when most state legislators are seeking re-election and one of the bill’s champions, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, is running for governor. Bryant was state auditor in 2006 and issued the immigration report Fillingane cited during yesterday’s debate.
Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said innocent people could end up in jail while their immigration status is verified. He also said law officers could become vulnerable to lawsuits from people who think the officers are doing too little to stop illegal immigration.
“We’re getting involved in an issue that is for the federal government to decide,” Tollison said. “I agree the immigration system needs fixing, but it should be fixed in Washington, D.C.”
The bill says that in deciding to check a person’s immigration status, an officer “shall not consider race, color or national origin in the enforcement of this section except to the extent permitted by the United States or Mississippi Constitution.”
Despite the specific prohibition on racial profiling, some senators said they fear that people with brown or black skin will be targeted for harassment.
“I know you’ve got it in the bill, but law enforcement doesn’t usually follow it,” Jordan said of the profiling ban. “I can give you scores of examples where it doesn’t.”
Fillingane said officers would be trained in how to enforce the law if it’s enacted.
“We don’t want them willy-nilly out there profiling people,” Fillingane said.
Fillingane said an officer would have reasonable cause to check a person’s immigration status if the person “cannot speak a lick of English.”
Some senators said they fear the immigration status checks could create problems for foreign students at community colleges and universities.
“I truly, truly think these students are going to be profiled,” said Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez.
Fillingane answered: “It’s strictly forbidden.”
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said a status-check law could create problems for foreign tourists, including some who might carry open containers of alcohol when they’re visiting places like Clarksdale to partake of Mississippi’s musical culture. He said a tourist without proper ID could be jailed until his or her background is checked.
Horhn proposed an amendment that said employers caught hiring illegal immigrants would lose public contracts. His proposal was defeated, with 10 senators voting for it and 29 voting against. Support for Horhn’s proposal came from those who opposed the bill, and opposition came from those pushing the bill.
The bill is Senate Bill 2179.