Miss. farming town's immigrants pray bill will die

By Laura Tillman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 9:40 a.m. MDT

In this March 23, 2012 photograph, Melissa Edmonson, part-owner of Topshaw Farms, stands in her office in Vardaman, Miss. Edmonson values the work of the immigrant laborers she hires under an immigrant visa program.

Laura Tillman, Associated Press

VARDAMAN, Miss. — On a recent afternoon in this Mississippi sweet potato farming town of 1,300, a group of immigrants gathered in the safe haven of the Catholic Charities office to discuss visa options.

The conversation quickly turned to the immigration bill being debated in the state Legislature, and talk of what to do if it passes.

Immigrant advocates mostly suggest they pray the bill does not become law.

Vardaman's farms, packing plants and furniture factories 150 miles northeast of Jackson have brought a small migratory wave to the green rolling hills and expansive fields over the past two decades. Many people here illegally are from the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, and came to join a relative holding a work visa. Their lives could change radically under the law.

House Bill 488, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act of 2012, mimics tough immigration laws enacted in Arizona and Alabama. It has passed the House and faces a Tuesday deadline for consideration in a Senate committee.

The measure would require police to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement whenever they arrest someone suspected of being in the country illegally. The bill also forbids illegal immigrants from doing simple state transactions, such as applying for a driver's license. Law enforcement departments that don't comply would be subject to fines of up to $5,000 per day. An estimated 45,000 illegal immigrants live in Mississippi, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The bill's chief author, Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, says it would ensure the state's workforce is legal. Mississippi tea party president Roy Nicholson argues that jobs vacated by illegal workers would be filled by U.S. citizens. The Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement also strongly supports the bill.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant continues to back the bill, saying employers with legal workers shouldn't be affected.

ICE would not comment on the legislation, though a spokesman said the agency works well with Mississippi law enforcement authorities.

The bill faces opposition from some of the state's most powerful law enforcement and agricultural groups. Sheriffs and police chiefs say it could fill local jails with illegal immigrants without adequate funding to feed and house them. The Mississippi Economic Council, a politically powerful state chamber of commerce, says federal law is the best means of assuring the workforce is legal.

Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, says the bill dredges up ugly chapters of Mississippi's past.

"This creates an image problem that Mississippi doesn't need based on our history," Leggett said.

In Vardaman, Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan opposes the bill and says local immigrants don't cause any more problems than anyone else.

At Vardaman Elementary School, a 12-year-old named Jenny said she heard about the immigration bill the way many of her neighbors have — over a Spanish-language TV news broadcast. She asked her parents whether the immigration police would take them away.

Only if you're outside, her mother said.

"I said, 'Mom, I'm never gonna go outside.'"

Jenny was born in the United States to Mexican immigrant parents who acknowledge they don't have proper documents. Her family asked that their last name be withheld for fear of deportation.

In their Mississippi home, the traditions of her parents' native Mexico have fused with Southern country living.

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