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Barbour May Follow in Brewer’s Footsteps on Controversial Immigration Policy

Mississippi governor and potential Republican presidential contender Haley Barbour addressed a Chamber of Commerce audience in Chicago Monday, where he spent most of his time on criticizing President Obama’s handling of the economy.

He will likely continue to do the same in Iowa and California this week as he continues to test the presidential waters. But back in Mississippi, a quieter fight over a pending immigration bill is brewing, one which would undoubtedly play role in the upcoming battle for the GOP nomination.

Modeled closely after the contentious law enacted by Arizona governor Jan Brewer last April, the proposed measure in Mississippi would allow law enforcement officers to ask people they suspect of being illegal immigrants for proof that they are in the country legally. Failure to produce proper documentation could result in jail time or deportation.

There are slight variations in both chambers’ versions of the bill. The state Senate measure would have allowed people to sue cities, counties, and law enforcement officials who failed to comply with the new rules. The House stripped that language, and added a provision to allow for lawsuits and fines for employers of illegal immigrants.

Reaction to the proposed legislation at the local level has largely fallen along predictable partisan lines. The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance has called it unethical and racist. And a group of state bishops sent an open letter to Gov. Barbour, arguing that “From a public policy standpoint, this bill does not make good law or good sense.”

Ali Noorani heads the pro-immigrant rights group National Immigration Forum. He says the bill could have negative consequences for the state’s budget. “Responsible lawmakers know that immigrants contribute considerably to the state economy,” says Noorani, pointing to data from the Immigration Policy Center. “Mississippi would lose more than $583 million in economic activity if all undocumented immigrants were removed from the state and that immigrant owned businesses had sales and receipts of more than $214 million and employed more than 11,000 people in 2002.”

Conservative groups, on the other hand, are eager to jump on board. At a recent meeting of the Southwest Mississippi Tea Party, Republican State Rep. Becky Currie urged Mississippi to pick up where Arizona had left off. “What the Arizona bill does is put this back in our hands,” she said. Fellow Tea Party member Ken Stroud echoed her sentiments: “We need 49 other states in with Arizona. Are they going to sue us all?”

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter enforcement on immigration, said, “These kinds of state measures are all to the good.” Looking forward, he predicted that “Just as state laws on wage and hour and occupational safety and the like eventually led to uniform federal standards, these state laws will eventually force Congress and the administration to tighten up on immigration.”

Where does Gov. Barbour come down on the bill? While he has said in the past he thinks it’s reasonable for law enforcement officers to ask for documentation from suspected illegal immigrants, the governor’s office declined to comment on the specific bill while it was still making its way through the legislature. “However,” said a spokesman, “Gov. Barbour supports strong, enforceable immigration laws.”

Despite that support, Barbour’s record on immigration could be a cause of concern for his party’s base. It came to light in February that his former lobbying firm, Griffith & Rogers, worked with the Embassy of Mexico in 2001 on legislation to provide a path to citizenship for Mexicans living illegally in the U.S. And in an interview with the Hoover Institution last September, Barbour praised the efforts of people he believed to be illegal immigrants in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, saying, “I don’t know where we would have been in Mississippi after Katrina if it hadn’t been for the Spanish speakers that came in to help rebuild, and there’s no doubt in my mind that some of them weren’t here legally.”

It may prove difficult for Gov. Barbour to have it both ways. “Elected leaders are caught between a rock and hard place,” the National Immigration Forum’s Noorani explained. “They want to cater to their extreme base, who would like to demagogue immigrants. But they also see the contributions of immigrants, documented or not, in their communities. In order to win at the statewide or national level, Republican politicians need to be very cognizant.” He expects immigration to be a big issue in the lead-up to the presidential election. “We’ll see it play a big role in the primaries, and then candidates will be doing everything they can to detoxify the issue.”

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies agrees that it’s not a simple political scenario for Republicans. “It might be more accurate to ask if immigration hawks are winning at the state level and, while it’s a big, complicated landscape, the answer is generally yes.” He cautions against making predictions about 2012. “There’s no way to know whether immigration will figure prominently in next year’s election — it will depend on the unemployment rate, which candidate the Republicans select (with McCain last time there was little debate because he and Obama had similar position on immigration), the situation in Mexico, and whether unexpected events happen during the campaign.”

No state has been successful in passing an immigration law identical to Arizona’s – yet. If Mississippi lawmakers can iron out their differences by the time they adjourn in April, the next move belongs to Gov. Barbour.

And that bill could land on his desk on the eve of the launch of his potential presidential campaign.

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