JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said yesterday he supports an immigration-enforcement bill working its way through the state Legislature, and he dismissed critics’ contention that it could lead to racial profiling of Hispanics.
“This law applies to everyone, not just to people who are south of us or Hispanic by descent. But look at the crime and violence that we now see in Mexico,” Republican Bryant said at the Capitol. “The border — south of these United States lies a country that seems to be in chaos.”
Bryant, who became governor in January, said some people suggest that the U.S. “should ignore individuals who come here from that very violent atmosphere.” He said he disagrees.
“Follow the law. That’s all we ask. Simply get in line with those who want to become Americans, abide by the restrictions that we have and you will be welcome with open arms,” Bryant said during a news conference hosted by the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement and the Mississippi Tea Party.
The immigration enforcement proposal, House Bill 488, awaits consideration in the House Education Committee.
The bill says law enforcement officials should check for immigration status when “a reasonable suspicion exists” that a person is in the U.S. illegally. It would ban officers from considering race, color or national origin when making that decision, although Bill Chandler of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliances has said repeatedly that he believes it could lead to profiling.
The bill also would require schools to check students’ immigration status.
The Mississippi bill originally mirrored an Alabama law that took effect in 2011 as one of the toughest immigration-enforcement measures in the country. During a House Judiciary B Committee meeting last Friday, Mississippi lawmakers removed some provisions that have been blocked by federal courts in Alabama, including a requirement that people carry immigration papers at all times.
Dr. Rodney Hunt, a Jackson-area surgeon who is president of MFIRE, said government has an obligation to protect citizens from “problems of massive, uncontrolled illegal immigration.”
“We believe that this legislation will greatly reduce the number of illegal immigrants in our state and open up jobs for our citizens,” Hunt said.
Roy Nicholson, chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party, said illegal immigration infringes on citizens’ rights to private property.
“We expect people who are not citizens of our great country to respect our rights and not be in our country illegally,” Nicholson said.
During a separate news conference on the steps of the Capitol, two Catholic bishops spoke against the bill.
“As Catholics we have a responsibility to the Gospel message to love God and love our neighbor,” said Bishop Joseph Latino of the Jackson diocese.
Latino expressed his concern for families and children who could be impacted if the bill becomes law.
“If everyone is going to be arrested simply because they are not legally in the country, they’re leaving families behind with no one to care for them,” Latino said.
Bishop Roger Morin of the Biloxi diocese said: “It’s a human issue, it’s a humanitarian issue. We want ourselves to be on the side of helping the disadvantaged, weak and vulnerable.”
Morin also said immigration is an issue best handled by the federal government.
“The state laws border on being discriminatory,” he said. “What gets lost in this conversation is that the citizens of this country are descendants of immigrants. Those who speak so loudly against others who come here to work and call them lawbreakers forget our origins.”
Bryant said the bill, in its current form, would allow churches to provide aid to immigrants without fear of punishment.
“We have no hatred, no anger, no frustration,” Bryant said. “I’ve been to Mexico on two different occasions with my Methodist church on mission trips. I’d love to see how many people in this building that are against this law have done that. They can come along with me and help build a medical clinic in La Joya, Mexico.”
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