For some people, it's snakes; for others, spiders. And yet others have absolutely crippling fear of buttons (koumpounophobia). Gov. Phil Bryant's biggest phobia clearly is that a bunch of people are trying to sneak into Mississippi. This is evidenced in his recent stated opposition to a program that places a handful of immigrant children in foster and group homes around the state each year.
Last week, Bryant told federal officials that Mississippi would no longer accept children through the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program is 100 percent funded through the federal government but funnels the money through the Mississippi Department of Human Services to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Jackson, which has run the program for 34 years.
There are currently 27 participants in the program, but Bryant believes that President Barack Obama wants to use the program to flood Mississippi with children who arrived in the U.S. illegally through Mexico.
Bryant laid out his rationale to Mississippi Public Broadcasting recently.
"This program started after the Vietnam War to bring Vietnamese children over here. ... Many of the children that are coming now are from areas like Venezuela and El Salvador and Mexico, the same countries that we see children flooding into the United States. I want to make sure that these two programs are not being blended and if it takes terminating that program or suspending it until we can make certain of that, I am willing to do that," Bryant told MPB.
Bryant's fears appear to be without basis in rationality. The children who participate in the program, who are come from war- and disaster-torn countries, receive refugee status from the United Nations, giving them legal immigration status, explains Greg Patin, executive director of Catholic Charities in Jackson.
From there, the charity recruits foster families to place children with or places them in a group home that houses eight boys who come from countries in Central America, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Like other kids, the children attend local schools, and the charity provides tutors if necessary as well as support from cultural specialists who help with the transition to a new country.
"They generally know very little English when they get here, but they learn so fast," Patin said, adding that the children also receive therapy and case management through the charity.
Bryant, who is Methodist, met with several faith leaders Sept. 4 for what a statement from the Catholic Diocese of Jackson called a cordial meeting. Officials declined to discuss the meeting at length, but said through a statement that Bryant "was assured the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program operated by Catholic Charities for 34 years serves refugee children coming into the country legally from a number of countries across the globe" and that Bryant "promised to carefully consider the situation."
This isn't the first time Bryant has put his toe in the waters of international affairs.
On July 18, Bryant sent a letter to President Obama expressing outrage at the U.S.' growing trend of taking in and helping migrant children. It began: "I am writing to express my deep concern regarding the ongoing crisis at the United States' southern border. Illegal aliens—many unaccompanied children—are flooding into our country in record numbers."
Despite the fact that Obama has also deported people in record numbers, Bryant has often locked horns, albeit unsuccessfully, with the White House over immigration policy.
In 2012, a group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents sued then-U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano over Obama's executive order that ended the practice of deporting young people whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children. The agents, who were represented by Kris Kobach, Kansas' controversial secretary of state who is credited with helping develop anti-immigrant legislation in several states, claimed that the new policy prevented them from fulfilling their sworn duty.
In October of that year, Bryant joined the lawsuit on the state's behalf, making Mississippi the only state to be a plaintiff in the federal suit, filed in Texas. In July 2013, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor dismissed the suit because the district court lacked jurisdiction.
Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which is providing legal services pro bono to some of the children in the program, said Bryant's latest move is part of Bryant's long history of using immigrants as a punching bag to score points with his conservative political base.
In 2006, then-state Auditor Bryant commissioned a report that concluded undocumented immigrants cost state taxpayers millions of dollars based on "significant education, law enforcement and health care costs, as well as substantial lost tax revenues and other economic losses."
At the time, Bryant estimated that 49,000 "illegal aliens" resided in the state.
The Pew Hispanic Center placed the number of undocumented immigrants at 45,000 in 2010. Contrary to Bryant's assertion, however, unauthorized residents are not eligible to access such government benefits as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Chandler characterizes Bryant's report and previous public stances on immigration issues as "full of misinformation."
"Phil Bryant will do things and say things without thinking—and that's being kind," Chandler said.