Contractors, ag groups join opposition to immigration-enforcement bill

JACKSON — Building contractors and agriculture groups, including those representing the poultry industry and sweet-potato growers, say they’re against an immigration-enforcement bill awaiting debate in Mississippi.

Their opposition indicates growing political difficulties for a bill supported by first-term Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who won office last November with the help of tea party groups and the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, which lists its goal as promoting and preserving national sovereignty.

House Bill 488 says if someone is arrested and a law enforcement officer has “reasonable suspicion” about the person’s immigration status, the officer would be required to check the immigration status before the person could be released.

The bill passed the House 70-48 March 14. It faces an April 3 deadline for consideration by a Senate committee, but Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had not sent it to a committee by late yesterday. His spokeswoman, Laura Hipp, said Reeves is reviewing several bills and will assign them to committees by the end of this week.

A contractor’s association and seven agriculture groups said in a letter to lawmakers that the bill could hurt Mississippi’s economy.

“As it stands now, HB488 presumes, without any evidence to support the presumption, that state and local officials can distinguish people who are in the United States legally from people who are here illegally,” the letter says. “They can’t. We can’t. You can’t.”

The letter is signed by directors of the Mississippi Poultry Association, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Gulf South Blueberry Growers Association, Mississippi Loggers Association, Mississippi Nursery and Landscape Association, Mississippi Forestry Association and the state chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation is one of the largest and most influential groups in state politics, with more than 200,000 member families in a state with about 2.9 million residents. In the past, the federation has successfully helped defeat ballot initiatives that would’ve put term limits on legislators.

Opposition to the immigration-enforcement bill also came this week from the president of Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association and the executive directors of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, the Mississippi Municipal League and the Mississippi Association of Supervisors. Together, the four groups sent senators a letter expressing concerns that the immigration bill would put new requirements on cities and counties without state funding to pay for training or additional jail space. The four groups said that could lead local governments to raise taxes.

The bill creates a fund that would reimburse local sheriffs and police chiefs $20 a day for holding illegal immigrants, but it’s unclear whether fines imposed in the bill and other state money would be enough to cover the costs.

The contractors and agriculture groups also said they see the bill as having potential unfunded mandates. “Legislators rightly complain when Congress does this to Mississippi. We feel it is unfair for Mississippi legislators to do the same to Mississippi citizens,” they wrote.

The Mississippi bill originally was similar to a 2010 Alabama law that’s one of the strictest immigration enforcement measures in the nation. Parts of the Alabama law have been blocked by federal courts.

The Mississippi bill this year originally would’ve required schools to check students’ immigration status. It also would’ve required people to carry immigration papers at all times. Those provisions were removed before the bill passed the House.

An immigration enforcement bill passed the Republican-controlled Mississippi Senate in 2011, when Bryant was lieutenant governor and was the chamber’s presiding officer. The bill died in what was then a Democratic-controlled House. Republicans won the House majority this past November, and Bryant moved up to the governorship.

The local government associations raised similar concerns about costs in 2011.

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