Immigration

Immigrant Rights Activists Battle Harsh Laws Across U.S.

Advocates for immigrant rights have begun weaving together coalitions to have their voices heard.

JACKSON, Miss. -- Ever since the harshest immigration law in the country went into effect in this state July 1st, activists on the ground have mobilized a diverse coalition -- including civil rights, church and labor leaders -- to build opposition to it.

The "Mississippi Employment Protection Act," which passed the legislature with overwhelming support, requires that businesses use the federal E-Verify program to check workers' immigration status and most notably -- makes it a felony for an undocumented worker to accept work in the state, authorizing penalties of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. U.S. residents may also sue businesses if they are fired and replaced by an unauthorized worker.

Mississippi's state capitol isn't alone in legislating a crackdown. Even as Washington D.C.'s immigrant advocates organize to push for comprehensive immigration reform in president-elect Barack Obama's term, the bitterest immigration battles are being waged on the state level. This is happening not only in states like California that are familiar with contentious immigration debates, but also in states once on the sidelines.

Although other state capitols stopped short of creating felony charges for undocumented workers, laws similar to Mississippi's legislation gained approval this year in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri, Utah and West Virginia.

The state laws can be seen as stopgap measures. Only the federal government has the power to address the immigration system and change the way it works. But after the last effort at immigration reform -- the McCain-Kennedy bill -- failed in the U.S. Senate in 2007, many states decided to take what matters they could into their own hands.

"They have done the one thing in their power: crack down harder, with more aggressive enforcement, new restrictions, new more punitive penalties," reads a June 2008 report by ImmigrationWorks USA, a national organization of state-level business coalitions supporting immigration reform.

Sometimes the new zero-tolerance approach to illegal immigration is not embodied in legislation, but in agreements of varying formality that bind local and state agencies to cooperate with Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

The most well-known of these is a program called "287(g)" , which delegates immigration enforcement authority to state troopers, county sheriffs or local police. Though 287(g) programs have been running since 2003 ICE documents show that half the 63 partnership agreements currently active were signed in the last 16 months -- after immigration reform's failure in mid-2007.

ICE's roster of 287g agreements reads like a map to hotspots in the immigration wars, places where activists say relations between immigrants and the larger community are particularly strained.

According to ICE, Virginia has nine law enforcement agencies participating in 287g, North Carolina eight and Arizona seven, including Maricopa County, known for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's media-grandstanding against illegal immigrants.

ICE also chose North Carolina for four of its seven "Secure Communities" pilot programs, high-tech linkages of local detention facilities to federal fingerprint databases, so that all arrestees' immigration histories can be checked. Immigration-related laws can also be enacted on the county level, as they were in Suffolk County on Long Island, New York. That county's chief executive, Democrat Steve Levy, has also recently come under fire for his outspokenness on illegal immigration after the November hate killing of an Ecuadorean.

This cascade of immigration-related laws and programs, and the political battles being waged over them, will not disappear if an Obama administration fulfills its promise of pushing through comprehensive reform, says A. Elena Lacayo, who tracks legislation for the National Council of La Raza. "It won't necessarily solve all the issues that have been coming about on the state and local level."

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."