Jackson, Miss. — A Catholic Charities official in the Jackson Diocese sees "a tremendous victory" in the April 19 death of a Mississippi bill that would have required local law enforcement officers to detain anyone who is in the country illegally or who might be, regardless of why they were stopped by police.
Local officers then would have had to notify federal authorities to come and pick up the suspect.
"Our impetus in opposing the bill was to support our clients," said Amelia McGowan, program director and immigration attorney for the Migrant Support Center for Catholic Charities in Jackson.
"Under this bill, if someone was stopped without their driver's license, they could be detained and transferred" to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, McGowan explained.
Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of Jackson joined the coalition opposing the bill, known as S.B. 2306, and has spoken out against it.
The measure also called for a ban on so-called "sanctuary cities," which are places where local law enforcement are not allowed to ask any suspect about his or her immigration status. There are currently no sanctuary cities in Mississippi, but the bill's author, Sen. Sean Tindal, felt the state should be doing more to enforce immigration laws.
McGowan was part of an effort spearheaded by Church World Service to speak out against the bill. Noel Anderson, the national grass-roots coordinator for the organization, contacted faith leaders from across the state, asking them to sign a letter to be hand-delivered to lawmakers.
Bishop Kopacz joined the more than 40 pastors, community and religious leaders who signed the letter and McGowan hand-delivered it to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' office. Other advocates delivered copies to Tindal and Rep. Mark Baker, both of whom are Judiciary Committee chairs in their respective legislative chamber.
The letter criticizes the bill, saying it "would force state and local police to serve as immigration enforcement officers and comply with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers to hold immigrants in custody. S.B. 2306 strips local law enforcement agencies of critical discretion, in effect conscripting them to prioritize immigration enforcement over local public safety needs, and they will be forced to pick up the bill for it too."
The letter goes on to caution that this bill put immigrants at higher risk of being victims of crime repeatedly, since many victims would be afraid to report crimes for fear the police would turn them over to ICE as well.
"These provisions would not make communities or cities in Mississippi any safer," it said. "Rather, they would reverse community-based policing efforts that are vital to public safety in our neighborhoods. Safety increases for everyone when all individuals can report dangerous situations and seek protection from violence without the fear of being deported and separated from their families."
McGowan agreed. "We pride ourselves on the relationships we are building with local law enforcement and this bill could have undermined that effort," she told the Mississippi Catholic, Jackson's diocesan newspaper.
She said she and her team try to work with local officers across the area to keep the whole community safe and build trust between immigrants and law enforcement.
Mississippi is not the only state where this type of legislation has been introduced. Ashley Feasley, the director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, or CLINIC, said she has been keeping an eye on a number of bills this year. She said she was thrilled to hear the Mississippi version died.
"S.B. 2306 faced a diverse opposition coalition including law enforcement and faith-based groups, who voiced concern with the bill as it related to enforcement costs and local safety issues," said Feasley. "S.B. 2306 is not unique in that it is part of a larger national immigration enforcement and sanctuary city trend emerging during this legislative session across the country. Several states have attempted to enact enforcement related provisions affecting local community law enforcement. We will likely continue to see these types of bills being introduced at the state level in the next legislative session."
Although the bill died for lack of progress, McGowan believes the voices of the faith and advocacy communities helped.
"It was certainly a team effort," she said. "We appreciate the support from CLINIC, from our bishop and from the others in the faith community."