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As Obama Promises Immigration Reform, State Backlash Continues

New America Media, News Report, Marcelo Ballv Posted: Apr 21, 2009

Editor's Note: As immigrant rights advocates welcome the Obama administration's promise of comprehensive immigration reform, state and local authorities are stepping up efforts to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identify, arrest and deport undocumented immigrants.

Despite the Obama administration's promise to act on immigration reform this year, a backlash against immigrants continues to rage countrywide. One result is a growing patchwork of hardline state and local policies aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

Even immigrant advocates focused now on mobilizing for reform acknowledge their battle will ultimately need to go beyond a Washington D.C.-legislated fix. The backlash against immigrants has sprung up in neighborhoods and far-flung localities, and also needs to be combated at the grassroots.

"This isn't going to be over when comprehensive immigration reform is passed," said Tony Stephens, communications associate with the New York-based nonprofit The Opportunity Agenda, during an online meeting last week with immigration reform advocates.

In Mississippi, over 20 hardline immigration-related bills were introduced in this year's legislative session, according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). Utah's hardline immigration law goes into effect July 1. In New Jersey, a directive that orders police to question individuals arrested for a serious crime about their immigration status has been abused, and routine traffic stops become immigration busts, according to a report released this month by the Seton Hall University School of Law.

In Alamance County North Carolina, Sheriff Terry Johnson's participation in a federal program that deputizes local law enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants has fanned a divisive debate on immigration and Mexican culture, casting a pall on all Hispanic immigrants, whether they entered the country illegally or not.

An Elon University study found that Sheriff Johnson was grossly underreporting the number of Latinos his department was pulling over, though he denied racial profiling. And earlier this month, University of North Carolina law professor Deborah M. Weissman testified on Capitol Hill about the same sheriff's "brazenly racist claims about Mexicans."

According to Weissman, Johnson had been quoted saying, "[T]heir values are a lot different -- their morals -- than what we have here. In Mexico, there's nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-, 13-year-old girl ... They do a lot of drinking down in Mexico." Sheriff Johnson participates in a federal program named 287(g) for a section of the 1996 immigration law creating it. Made most notorious by Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, it's meant to partner police and sheriffs with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and bolster the country's ability to target transnational crimes and deport undocumented immigrants with rap sheets. Instead, critics say, it has become a favorite tool for rounding up Latinos and intimidating immigrant communities.

The federal program is also at issue in one of the get-tough immigration measures that's still pending in the Mississippi legislature (23 bills considered "anti-immigrant or anti-worker" by immigrant rights advocates did not win approval). Gary Chism, a Republican state representative, tacked on a provision to an appropriations bill that would require Mississippi's Department of Public Safety to participate in 287(g) ICE training.

Chism also added an amendment requiring Mississippi's Department of Corrections to participate in a separate ICE program that connects prisons with federal agents to track inmates who are immigration violators and funnel them to deportation proceedings.

Chism said he's optimistic that at least the corrections measure will make it into law, but the 287(g) proposal may stall since it's costly. He said the federal government isn't doing enough to control illegal immigration.

"We need to protect Mississippi and Mississippian jobs" from illegal immigrants, he told New America Media.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has launched a review of 287(g) and the program may be in for some changes, but department spokesman Matt Chandler acknowledges it remains popular with state and local law enforcement agencies.

"Participants realized drops in crime and removal of repeat offenders," he said in a phone interview.

He would not say what an overhauled 287(g) program might look like, but gave no indication it would be scrapped altogether, as some immigrant rights groups have demanded.

MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler sees Chism's 287(g) and prisons proposals as part of a concerted effort by xenophobic politicians to hound Latinos, not just illegal immigrants, out of the state.

A broad, hardline immigration law passed last year includes a plank making it a felony for an undocumented worker to accept work in Mississippi, 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.

Though officially called the "Mississippi Employment Protection Act" Chandler calls the law the "ethnic cleansing act" and has lobbied furiously for its repeal so far without success.

In Utah, a similarly broad law will go into effect July 1. Though stopping short of criminalizing the labor of undocumented immigrants, the law requires, among other things, that state and local agencies verify the immigration status of anyone applying for certain services, including health care. The law stipulates penalties for undocumented immigrants accessing services they're no longer authorized to receive.

Though the law excludes emergency care, vaccinations and care for communicable diseases, there's still confusion over exactly what services might be off-limits. Community clinics worry fearful immigrants, whatever their immigration status, might forgo health care altogether, potentially creating public health risks.

The law also allows all Utah law enforcement agencies to deputize their agents to enforce immigration law. Already, however, some say they'll opt out of that plank of the law. Park City's Police Chief Wade Carpenter, for example, said he wouldn't participate because it's an idea driven by the politics of immigration rather than an effort to find real solutions.

"I don't think it accomplishes what we need to accomplish," Carpenter was quoted as saying. "It's the tail wagging the dog."

Related Articles:

S.F. Immigrants Testify Against Racial Profiling

Deportation Rips Family Apart -- Moves Student to Organize

The Knock at the Door: San Franciscos Sanctuary Status Under Fire

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