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.
Her mother, Maria, cooks pozole and fresh tortillas more often than hamburgers, and Jenny helps her practice English. Jenny's father works at a furniture factory, which pays better than the sweet potato labor. About 20 members of their extended family live in the rural town.
While proponents of immigration laws like HB 488 say they free up jobs for Americans, the H2A and H2B visa programs for foreign workers are designed to discourage employers from hiring immigrant labor unless absolutely necessary. To do this, the programs require employers to pay immigrant workers a higher wage and transport, house and feed them. Local workers become economically attractive by comparison.
"These programs wouldn't exist unless we needed them," said Joshua Lamont, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor.
At Topshaw Farms in Vardaman, the Edmonson family says the bill could devastate their business. They've watched the effect of Alabama's bill on crops like sweet potatoes, and say a profitable harvest can turn to waste if labor isn't available the moment it's ready to be plucked from the vine.
"When your crop's at risk, you can't fool with people who don't want to work," said Sandra Lucius, assistant manager at Topshaw Farms.
Melissa Edmonson, whose family owns farms and a packing plant, said she puts out periodic calls for local labor with meager results.
"They'll often come work for a week, and then leave because they don't understand how difficult the work really is," Edmonson said.
Speaking of immigrant laborers, she said: "These guys bust their tail."
Many immigrant workers have work visas, but their spouses or children may lack documentation. When immigration laws like House Bill 488 are considered, immigrants must also weigh the risk of family separation.
"We want to stay, but our family has never been separated," Jenny's mother Maria said. "If the bill passes we'll probably go back to Mexico."
Maria's hometown, a poor suburb of the city of San Luis Potosi, would represent a dramatic decline in quality of life for her children, who are U.S. citizens. Water and electricity are available but of questionable quality, and there are few jobs.
Jenny arrived at Vardaman Elementary speaking no English, but the school's sole bilingual teacher Barbara Annie Anderson brought her up to speed.1 comment on this story
When Anderson began teaching at Vardaman Elementary 16 years ago, she worked with a handful of migrant farmworkers' children. Now, about 150 of the school's 400 students are Hispanic.
When asked if she would mind moving to Mexico, Jenny said no.
"There are no rules there," she said. But then her teacher asked if she would miss her friends.
"Oh yeah, I'd miss my friends, and school, and my teachers, and my favorite candy. Even you, Miss Annie," she said with a smirk.
But Maria understands what her children would really miss.
"The opportunities for them here, they can go far, and life is peaceful," she said. "I'm Mexican, but my children are Mexican-American."