Immigrant Rights Activists Battle Harsh Laws Across U.S.
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Realizing that the immigration wars have trickled down into state legislatures and even county boards, those who advocate for immigrants have begun weaving together coalitions to have their voices heard. These groups may include business, civil rights, labor or faith-based organizations.
A protest in Jackson on Dec. 4 included a Catholic priest, a black state representative, labor leaders, and several veterans of 1960s-era Civil Rights struggles. "Working is not a crime," read one of the banners carried by the protesters as they marched on the state capitol, demanding a repeal of the "Mississippi Employment Protection Act." Bill Chandler of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance called the legislation "wrongheaded and bigoted." Its intention, he said, "is to scare Latinos out of the state."
Chris McDaniel, a Republican state senator and one of the bill's co-authors, debated Chandler the day after the protest on local public radio. "We are not talking about immigrants here, we're talking about illegal immigrants, and there is a huge difference," said McDaniel. "It's not a bigoted bill."
Repeal seems unlikely anytime soon. The bill passed with 52 votes in the state Senate, and none against.
But even in Mississippi, some 200 bills targeting illegal immigrants failed in the past, according to Chandler. And the outcome of other states' battles shows that immigrant advocates can be effective when they push back against punitive legislation.
In Arizona, an outcry from businesses helped win passage this year of a scaled back version of an employer-sanctions law passed in 2007. In Tennessee, 65 bills deemed anti-immigrant by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition were defeated in the 2008 legislative session, including an "English-Only Divers Act" that would eliminate all translations of written driver's license exams.
And just as immigration restrictionists have linked up across state lines to share templates for legislation and media messaging, immigrant advocates have begun to do the same.
The Jackson protest coincided with a three-day meeting here of the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network. Federal immigration reform was discussed, as were ICE raids like the massive Aug. 25 sweep on an electronics plant in southern Mississippi. But most activists seemed more absorbed with the barrage of immigration-related bills in state capitols and the ICE partnerships with state and local law enforcement they say sow distrust between crime-fighters and immigrants.
In the conference rooms, advocates from places like Kentucky; Savannah, Georgia; and Polk County in northern Florida traded stories on how elected officials, from sheriffs to state representatives to governors, had recently staked their claim on the issue of illegal immigration. In the trenches of state legislatures and county houses, immigration battles are increasingly hard-fought and narrowly won by one side or the other.
Describing the fight over one bill, Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition said, "we got too close on this one."