fb-pixelIn Mississippi, the immigration debate is about business, not civil rights - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

In Mississippi, the immigration debate is about business, not civil rights


Last November, Republicans finally took control of the House of Representatives here, the final victory of the party’s long Southern strategy. Not since Reconstruction had the GOP controlled every facet of political life. It wasn’t just any ol’ Republicans either; former Governor Haley Barbour is considered a moderate now. Governor Phil Bryant is a creature of the Tea Party. Though this is not a border state, every aspect of political life was aligned to follow in the footsteps of Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia in passing sweeping state laws against illegal immigration.

But something surprising happened in the Magnolia State. While liberals and immigration rights advocates were pinning futile hopes on the Supreme Court invalidating Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, lest other conservative states stampede to pass similar bills, Mississippi conservatives quietly shelved their own version. It now appears that Arizona-type laws are more likely to suffer their demise at the hands of politics rather than judges.

Mississippi’s experience shows how states often learn from the mistakes of their 49 siblings. Draconian anti-illegal-immigrant laws have been a disaster for Arizona and Alabama. Those states’ economies thrived off of undocumented immigrants; not any more. The get-tough laws, allowing officials to check people’s immigration status based on mere suspicions, hit many white residents in their wallets. And now, the Arizona and Alabama laws are reportedly being undercut by lack of enforcement, rather than any adverse court rulings.


Mississippi’s politics still tend to be divided along racial lines. The state is 37 percent African-American, the highest percentage in the nation, and its black community has long been organized around progressive causes. In the 1990s, the state’s growing casino industry became a lure for Hispanic immigrants. They joined forces with African-Americans to fight against the rising Republican power. But that seemed to serve only to drive more whites into the Republican Party.


And while many of those voters were enraged over illegal immigration, many others, surprisingly, were not. The Mississippi Senate faced strong opposition to its anti-illegal-immigrant law from the state chamber of commerce, the farm lobby, and, significantly, local governments. Their reasons were all different and were not very appealing. Clearly, the chance to preserve cheap labor with no regulation animated some of the farm and business groups; cities and towns didn’t want the extra work of hunting down undocumented workers. And none of these opponents aligned themselves with the liberal forces.

The chamber feared that the state’s reputation would suffer and engender boycotts. (Mississippi ranks at the bottom of many lists on education, health care, and economic opportunity; adding intolerance seemed one list too many.) Farmers knew they would not have enough workers, and couldn’t ignore the accounts coming out of Georgia and Alabama of crops rotting in the fields.

These groups changed the way immigration is discussed in a state that’s about as conservative as it gets. Rhetoric about civil rights or racial profiling only goes so far here. Business climate, agricultural interests, and fewer government mandates — that’s the language that gained traction.

With all these “white” interests aligned to defeat the bill, even the most conservative politicians took note. In Mississippi, the lieutenant governor gets to pick the heads of state Senate committees. Tate Reeves, the conservative Republican LG, appointed a Democrat, Bob Armory, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and then sent the bill there. Armory never put the bill up to committee vote. It is dead, for now.


Reeves, who was criticized by Tea Party members, reminded his party that not all conservatives are on the same page. In defending the procedural move that killed the bill, his spokesperson stated that the concerns “expressed by the Mississippi Economic Council, Farm Bureau, the Mississippi Poultry Association, and local cities, counties, police chiefs, and sheriffs” weighed heavily.

Missing from that list is anything actually related to immigrants or their rights. The opposition spoke the language that would win in a state where conservative Republicans reign. The victory may be discomforting, but it is a victory nonetheless.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.