‘Catholic Day’ or not, Bryant to vow immigration crackdown support

By Ted Carter

Gov. Phil Bryant will gather in the Capitol Wednesday with Tea Party allies to detail progress on giving Mississippi an “Alabama-style” law to keep undocumented immigrants from working in the state.

The 1:30 p.m. joint press conference with the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement and the Mississippi Tea Party could present some awkwardness because of other special guests visiting the Capitol.

Wednesday is “Catholic Day” at the Capitol and clergy and parishioners from the throughout the state will be meeting with legislators to voice opposition to stringent immigration measures such as House Bill 488 proposed by Rep. Becky Currie and endorsed by Bryant and his press conference partners.

The Brookhaven Republican styled the bill after Alabama’s, which authorizes law enforcement officers to request proof of legal residency during roadside checks or traffic stops and forbids landlords from renting dwellings to people without proof of legal residency. Moreover, utilities companies are forbidden to provide service to prospective customers who can’t prove they are in the country legally.

Currie says her measure would also strengthen provisions of Mississippi’s E-Verify law, which requires employers to verify the residency status of workers.

If nothing else, Mississippi legislators Wednesday will likely get an earful about both sides of the issue as the governor and his supporters talk up Currie’s bill and the Catholic contingent makes a call for more tolerance on the issue.

Bishop Joseph N. Latino of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson and Bishop Rogers P. Morin of the Biloxi Diocese joined with the their counterparts in the Episcopal and Methodist faiths to issue a Jan. 21 statement opposing the stringent anti-immigration measures supported by Bryant.

“We would do well to pause and reflect on the various dimensions of the immigration question before we craft legislation that will provoke anger, hostility and resentment…,” Bishops Latino and Morin said in a statement joined by Bishop Duncan M. Gray III of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the Mississippi territory of the United Methodist Conference.

They predicted that disparaging particular people “will have a significant negative impact on our Mississippi economy.”

Bryant and company see an entirely different outcome, and predict that jobless Mississippians will flock to fill the jobs left open by the departure of undocumented workers from the state. They cite the drop in Alabama’s unemployment rate from 9. 8 percent in September when Alabama began enforcement of its stringent immigration identification papers law to 8.1 percent at the end of November.

Alabama labor officials say, however, they have no evidence the immigration crackdown led to the lower jobless rate. What they do know is that an additional 41,000 Alabama residents began drawing paychecks. Other than a 300-worker statewide increase in poultry plant hiring in November, the state has no data to indicate that the agriculture sector accounted for much – if any – of the 41,000 new jobs.

“Nothing is there that I can tell,” said Tara Hutchinson, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, the agency that tracks and studies employment trends in the state.

Hutchinson said a significant portion of the new hiring could be attributed to the return of Alabama’s auto manufacturing to levels not seen since the start of the recession in 2008.

In addition, several large factories outside the auto industry went into operation in the fall, according to Hutchinson.

Mississippi could find out on its own whether enacting a law that causes undocumented workers to leave the state is a job creator or job killer.

Rodney Hunt, president of Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, said he is certain more jobs will be available throughout the state once the welcome mat is removed for what he estimates are 90,000 illegal immigrants in the state.

“We believe more jobs will open up for Mississippians as a result of HB488 and social benefits will go only to citizens and qualified legal immigrants,” Hunt said in a press statement announcing Wednesday’s Capitol press conference.

Farmers across Mississippi, on the other hand, fear that a loss of migrant labor could diminish the state’s agriculture production and result in job losses, said

Randy Knight, president of the 180,000-member Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.

Knight said in an interview last fall he is not convinced Mississippi crops can avoid a hit similar to one taken by Georgia last year, where a dearth of laborers led to spring fruit and vegetable losses estimated by the University of Georgia at upwards of $180 million.

The threat of leaving crops un-harvested in Alabama led that state’s agriculture commissioner to suggest prison labor be used to work the fields.

In Mississippi, said Knight: “We’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.”

However, Ken Hood, an agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, says Magnolia State farmers would see some labor losses but nothing like what their counterparts in Alabama and Georgia are experiencing.

Hood noted that the difference between Mississippi and its Alabama and Georgia counterparts is the small size of the state’s perishable fresh fruit and vegetable industry.

“Our specialty crop (the vegetables and fruit and the like) is only about 2 percent of the value of our agriculture,” he said. “In Georgia, it’s over $500 million. We’re below $100 million.”

Mississippi’s small specialty farmers aren’t as prone to use illegal labor as are the larger specialty growers in Georgia and elsewhere, according to Hood.

“The smaller guys won’t take the risks that some of the larger specialty crop operations in other states do,” he said in an October interview.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black issued an in-depth report in January that questioned the validity of claims that U.S. citizens want the agricultural jobs now filled by immigrant laborers.

“Local citizens do not generally possess or care to develop the specialized skills associated with agriculture and, further, do not regularly demonstrate the work ethic necessary to meet the productivity requirements of the farm business,” Black stated in the introduction to a report titled “Report on Agriculture Labor 2012.”

Black’s report called for extensive reform of the federal guest worker program that he said is now “fraught with far too many business-choking idiosyncrasies.”

Meanwhile, a study released Jan. 30 by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research projected Alabama’s immigration ID law will cost the state 70,000 to 140,000 direct and indirect jobs annually. Further, the measure is projected to bring a loss of $2.3 billion to $10.8 billion in Alabama’s GDP, according to the study headed by the center’s director, Dr. Samuel Addy.

Alabama, the report said, can expect about $56.7 million to $264.5 million less in state income and sales tax collection, and reductions in local sales tax collections of $20 million to $93 million.

“Hence, the law is costly to the state in an economic sense even if only the reduction in aggregate demand is considered,” Addy said.

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