Criminalizing Work | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Criminalizing Work

Photo by Melissa Webster

The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance recently held a clothing donation drive to help immigrant workers that it says were laid off from a Morton meat-processing plant and a Jackson roofing company, among other businesses, in preparation for Senate Bill 2988 becoming law this July.

"Mississippi is the only state that I am aware of that is criminalizing work," said Rebecca Smith, a coordinator with the National Employment Law Project, adding that the law is creating fear within the Latino community.

The bill makes it a felony for undocumented workers to seek or have employment. An undocumented worker can be sent to prison for one to five years and pay a fine of up to $5,000. The bill also discourages bail to undocumented workers.

"Koch Foods have been laying off about five employees a week in Morton," said the Rev. Goyo De La Cruz, of Trinity Mission United Methodist Church in Forest. "After July, we think the layoffs will come much faster." Officials at Koch Foods' home office in Park Ridge, Ill., did not return calls about the layoffs in Morton.

A representative of Independent Roofing Company in Jackson, who would not give her name, told the Jackson Free Press, "That's none of your business," when asked if the company had fired any employees in connection with the new law.

The legislation rode in on a wave of anti-immigrant fervor big enough to drown both the House and Senate's massive pro-business lobbies, which generally favor immigrant employment. Even House Democrats, who frequently disown anti-immigrant bills, championed the bill rather than risk the anti-labor rhetoric dogging the bill's opposition.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour signed the bill in March, but sought to absolve himself of the bill's legal challenges, warning legislators that the bill was an incomplete product that legislators needed to "revisit." He even made reconsideration of SB 2988 one of the goals of this summer's special session, though neither the Senate or House adopted that goal.

ACLU attorney Omar Jadwat says the state has attempted to supplant federal law.

"One of the fundamental problems with (SB 2988) is that the state has pushed aside federal laws and substituted state law," said Jadwat, an attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.

"What we have seen in other states is that it has created an exodus of immigrants from communities, and that it has driven workers more underground into more exploitative conditions," Smith said.

Smith said she expected the law to create "a culture of fear" in Mississippi that would have a negative impact on some immigrants' health, similar to what happened to a U.S.-born infant in Tulsa, Okla.

Two-month-old Edgar Castorena died of a ruptured intestine because his immigrant parents were afraid to take him to the hospital, even after the child's diarrhea raged for more than 10 days. A new Oklahoma law, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007, resembles the Mississippi law in barring illegal immigrants from obtaining jobs. It also refuses state assistance to undocumented immigrants, and makes it a felony to harbor or transport them. Like the Mississippi law, the Oklahoma law also requires private companies to verify the employment eligibility of all new hires.

ACLU attorney Marisol Perez said that communities with similar laws experienced a mass exodus, and not just of immigrants who may have a questionable legal status. Businesses often turned away Latino citizens rather than go through the trouble of verification or risking hiring an undocumented worker.

"These mixed families who have in many cases been very grounded in their community are leaving ... because they are feeling unwanted in their community," Perez said.

MIRA also questioned how the new law will be funded, and who will enforce it. The law asks county and municipal authorities to adopt some Immigrations and Customs Enforcement work. Hinds County Sheriff and Jackson Police Chief Malcolm McMillin warned that Hinds County would not have the funds to take on work normally delegated to the federal government. He warned recently that the state should be prepared to fund any additional costs migrant enforcement will impose on the already strained jail system.

MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler said MIRA will kick off an aggressive "know your rights," campaign in July in response to the bill, asking those people affected to contact MIRA.

Chandler said his organization will also work with the ACLU to challenge the law in court, but refused to give any details on attorneys' plan of attack at a press conference last Wednesday.

"We don't want to give away too much this early," Chandler said.

For more information or to report a complaint call MIRA at 601-968-5182.

Additional reporting by Adam Lynch.

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