Fighting the good fight for immigrant workers in Mississippi ... and winning

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

Four years ago, noted labor writer David Bacon had this to say about the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and its fight for immigrant workers in the nation's most conservative state: “Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power.”

Yet again this past legislative session, MIRA helped worked another miracle, preventing an arch-conservative state legislature from passing a draconian, Alabama-and-Arizona-style anti-immigration bill. Twice in this year's session, Republican legislators tried to win approval of House Bill 488, the so-called “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act of 2012”, and both times they failed.

The proposed law's provisions, its name antithetical to what it would do to Latino families and neighborhoods as well as law enforcement authorities, called for law enforcement authorities to arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and to notify federal immigration officials of those arrests. Fines would be levied against any reluctant law enforcement agency.

“We all know that the immigration debate is far from over,” MIRA said in a statement to supporters after the legislative battle. “It's a small victory in a larger battle for immigrants' and workers' rights. … Don't let this success lull you into thinking that the mentality behind the bill is gone. We know it's only a matter of time until the intent of the bill is revived.”

Indeed, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican elected last year with strong backing from the Mississippi Tea Party, has vowed to pursue the matter and may even call a special session of the state Legislature to take it up. Last year's historic elections also brought Mississippi a Republican House as well as Republican Senate in the Legislature.

However, MIRA is a formidable foe that has helped defeat an estimated 220 such bills over the past decade, a time when other Southern states like Alabama and Georgia were enacting laws identical to the ones being rejected in Mississippi.

The secret to MIRA's success thus far has been its work with the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, whose membership includes 31 of the House's 122 members and 11 of the Senate's 52 members. Each year MIRA holds a joint convention with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It also works with the NAACP and state labor leaders. MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler (in photo) is a veteran labor organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers during the historic strikes of the 1960s.

In this year's battle, the failure of so-called “immigration reform” in Alabama also helped prevent such measures in Mississippi. The cost of Alabama's anti-immigration law, the nation's strictest, could be as much as $2.3 billion annually and up to 140,000 lost jobs, according to a University of Alabama study.

The 2010 Census estimated that Mississippi has about 90,000 Latinos -- a number much too low, according to Chandler. The estimated number of undocumented workers is 45,000.

Those workers, however, fill many chicken plants and construction sites across the state, and the prospect of worker-less plants and constructions sites as well as overcrowded jails prompted an amazing coalition of business and law enforcement groups to stand alongside MIRA in opposing this year's anti-immigrant effort. Those groups included: the state's own chamber of commerce, called the Mississippi Economic Council; the powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, which has 200,000 member families; the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police; Mississippi Sheriff's Association; Mississippi Association of (County) Supervisors; and the Mississippi Municipal League. Religious leaders also weighed in against the measure. These groups traveled across the state to tell legislators of their opposition.

Law enforcement officials particularly worried about overcrowded jails becoming even more overcrowded and filled with immigrant workers.

This is already a huge problem nationwide. Thanks to hard lobbying by the private prison industry and the federal Operation Streamline initiative, Latinos make up more than half of the inmates serving out felony convictions in federal prisons today even though Latinos only represent 16 percent of the nation's population. The Texas Observer reports that Operation Streamline has pumped $1.2 billion into the private prison industry and cost taxpayers an additional $320 million just to fund the program.

This comes at a time in which immigration across U.S. borders is actually on the decline. The number of undocumented workers in the nation went from 12 million in the pre-recession days of 2007 to 11.2 million by 2010.

Immigrant groups like MIRA are striking back. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is continuing its pressure on the Publix grocery store chain to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes, money that then goes to raise the wages of the state's largely immigrant tomato-picking workforce.

Thanks to Depression-era Southern members of Congress, federal labor law excludes farmworkers, making the job of CIW and other groups that much more difficult to win rights for migrant workers. However, CIW has been successful in getting 10 major food corporations to agree to the penny increase, which CIW estimates has put an additional $4 million in workers' checks since January 2011.

In Alabama, religious and labor groups continue to fight that state's disastrous anti-immigration law, and they have made their fight global by going to Daimler officials in Germany and Hyundai officials in South Korea to get their support. Both auto companies have plants in Alabama.

MIRA's Chandler told me recently that indeed the battle is far from over in Mississippi. The anti-immigrant forces in the state are determined. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach -- one of the authors of Arizona's anti-immigrant law -- even came to Mississippi to rally support. It wasn't enough to turn the tide in their favor, but still it's too early for MIRA to pop champagne, Chandler said.

Nevertheless, Chandler admitted, some fellow activists brought champagne over anyway "and they popped it."