In 1991, seeking to boost its never robust economy, the state of Mississippi passed a law permitting casino gambling. In short order, immigrant construction workers arrived from Florida to build the casinos, and the casinos themselves began using contractors to supply immigrants to meet their growing labor needs. Guest workers, eventually numbering in the thousands, were brought under the H-2B program to fill many of the jobs the developments created.
Throughout the 1990s more immigrants arrived looking for work. Some guest workers overstayed their visas, while husbands brought wives, cousins, and friends from home. Mexicans and Central Americans joined South and Southeast Asians and began traveling north through the state, finding jobs in rural poultry plants. There they met African Americans, many of whom had fought hard campaigns to organize unions for chicken and catfish workers over the preceding decade.
It was not easy for newcomers to fit in. Their union representatives didn't speak their languages. When workers got pulled over by state troopers they were not only cited for lacking driver's licenses but also often handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol. Sometimes their children weren't even allowed to enroll in school.
"We decided that the place to start was trying to get a bill passed allowing everyone to get driver's licenses, regardless of who they were or where they came from," says Jim Evans, the AFL-CIO's state organizer and leader of the black caucus in the state legislature. In the fall of 2000, labor, church, and civil-rights activists formed an impromptu coalition and went to the legislature. At the core of the coalition were activists who had organized Mississippi's state workers and a growing caucus of black legislators sympathetic to labor. Evans, a former organizer for the National Football League Players Association, headed the group on the House side, while Sen. Alice Harden, who had led a state teachers' strike in 1986, organized the vote in the Senate.
Harden's efforts bore fruit when the driver's license bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2001. "But they saw us coming in the House and killed it," says Bill Chandler, at the time political director for the casino union, UNITE HERE. Nevertheless, the close fight convinced them that a coalition supporting immigrants' rights had a wide potential base of support and could help change the state's political landscape. In a meeting that November, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) was born.
One day soon, that black-brown-labor coalition might just be able to transform Mississippi's politics.
In big U.S. cities African Americans and immigrants, especially Latinos, often are divided by fears that any gain in jobs or political clout by one group can only come at the expense of the other. In Mississippi, African American political leaders and immigrant organizers favor a different calculation: Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power.
Since 2000, all three have cooperated in organizing one of the country's most active immigrants' rights coalitions, the MIRA. "You will always find folks reluctant to get involved, who say, it's not part of our mission, that immigrants are taking our jobs," Evans says. "But we all have the same rights and justice cause."
Evans, whose booming basso profundo comes straight out of the pulpit, remembers his father riding shotgun for Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader slain by racists in 1963. He believes organizing immigrants is a direct continuation of Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Poor People's March on Washington. "To get to peace and freedom," Evans says, "you must come through the door of truth and justice."
Both Evans, who chairs the MIRA, and Chandler, who is now its executive director, believe social justice and political practicality converge in the state's changing demographics. Long before World War II, Mississippi, like most Southern states, began to lose its black population. Out-migration reached its peak in the 1960s, when 66,614 African Americans left between 1965 and 1970, while civil-rights activists were murdered, hosed, and sent to jail. But in the following decades, as Midwestern industrial jobs began to move overseas and the cost of living in Northern cities skyrocketed, the flow began to reverse.
From 1995 to 2000, the state capital, Jackson, gained 3,600 black residents. In the 2000 census, African Americans made up more than 36 percent of Mississippi's 2.8 million residents -- a percentage that is no doubt higher today. And while immigrants were statistically insignificant two decades ago, today they comprise more than 4.5 percent of Mississippi's total population, according to news reports. "Immigrants are always undercounted, but I think they're now about 130,000, and they'll be 10 percent of the population 10 years from now," Chandler predicts.
That's still less than in the four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas) and the District of Columbia where some combination of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans already make up the majority. But MIRA activists see one other big advantage in Mississippi. "We have the chance here to avoid the rivalry that plagues Los Angeles and build real power," says Chandler, who left East L.A. and the farm workers' movement decades ago to come to the South. "But we have to fight racism from the beginning and recognize the leadership of the African American community." Eric Fleming, an MIRA staff member and former state legislator who recently filed for the Democratic nomination to replace Sen. Trent Lott, believes, "We can stop Mississippi from making the same mistakes others have made."
The same calculus can also apply across the South, which is now the entry point for a third of all new immigrants into the U.S. Four decades ago, President Richard Nixon brought the South's white power structure, threatened by civil rights, into the Republican Party. President Ronald Reagan celebrated that achievement at the Confederate monument at Georgia's Stone Mountain. "[Progressive] funders and the Democratic Party have written off much of the South since then," says Gerald Lenoir of California's Black Alliance for Just Immigration. But MIRA-type alliances could transform the region, he hopes, "and change the politics of this country as a whole."
The MIRA is the fruit of strategic thinking among a diverse group that reaches from African American workers on catfish farms and immigrant union organizers in chicken plants to guest workers and contract laborers on the Gulf Coast and, ultimately, into the halls of the state legislature in Jackson.
Chandler, who had been organizing state employees for the Communication Workers, went to work for the hotel union, UNITE HERE, and helped win union recognition in three Mississippi casinos. In 2005 in Las Vegas, the union was renegotiating its contract covering Harrah's Las Vegas operations. Harrah's also owned two Mississippi casinos in Tunica and one that was destroyed and later rebuilt in Gulfport. With the threat of a Nevada strike in the air, Harrah's agreed to a card-check process for union recognition in Mississippi, and eventually signed contracts covering the three casinos there at the end of that year, although temporary, contract, and H-2B workers were not covered.
To build a grassroots base, MIRA volunteers also went into chicken plants to help recruit newly arrived immigrants into unions. Mississippi is a right-to-work state, and union membership is not mandatory in workplaces with union contracts. Frank Curiel, a Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) representative who worked with the United Farm Workers for many years, says, "MIRA put the LIUNA business manager and a UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] rep on the board because we wanted them to understand the role of the union in representing Latinos -- they had contracts in chicken and fish plants." In one plant, Curiel signed up 80 percent of the newly arrived immigrants, while in two others, an MIRA student volunteer from the University of Texas signed up every Latino worker in two weeks.
The unions' work wasn't confined to fighting grievances or recruiting new members; immigrant workers had much bigger problems. "There was a pretty repressive system in Laurel, Collins, and Hattiesburg," Curiel recalls. "Plants had contracts with temp agencies, and all the workers were undocumented. It was very hard to get a new contract because of the surplus of Latino labor and low membership." But by building a combined membership of immigrant and African American workers, union negotiators in one plant forced the company to get rid of the temp service and hire employees directly. "That meant that African Americans gained access to those jobs, too," Curiel emphasizes.
In the casinos, MIRA volunteers worked with UNITE HERE organizers. In Jackson, the coalition got six bills passed the following year, stopping schools from requiring Social Security numbers from immigrant parents, and winning in-state tuition for any student who had spent four years in a Mississippi high school.
Then Katrina hit the Gulf.
Vicky Cintra, a Cuban American with a soft Southern accent, was the MIRA's first full-time organizer and got her baptism of fire on the Gulf Coast. After the hurricane blew through Biloxi and Gulfport, contractors began pouring in to do reconstruction, bringing with them crews of workers.
Cintra handed out 10,000 flyers with the MIRA's phone number, and the calls flooded in. Thirty-five workers abandoned by their contractor in dilapidated trailers received blankets and food. When two Red Cross shelters evicted Latinos, even putting a man in a wheelchair onto the street, the national news media reported on Cintra's efforts on behalf of the immigrants. "For the next year we were just reacting to emergencies," she recalls. The MIRA fought evictions and the cases of workers cheated by employers. "When we threatened picket lines, the contractors would sometimes offer to pay Latinos, but we said everyone had to be treated equally, and got money for African Americans and whites, too."
The MIRA eventually recovered over a million dollars. "And this was while the federal government had said it wouldn't enforce labor standards, OSHA, Davis Bacon, or any other law protecting workers," Cintra says. "Really, it had been like this for years, but Katrina just tore the veil away." The key to the MIRA's success, she believes, was that "we engaged workers in direct action. Eventually the contractors and companies settling in Mississippi got the idea that workers have rights and were getting organized."
MIRA volunteers also began to hear that guest workers were being recruited in India, not for reconstruction, but for the main industry on the Gulf -- ship building. Working in the shipyards has always been dirty, dangerous, and segregated. Jaribu Hill, an MIRA board member, accuses the yards of putting "hundreds of black women into the worst cleaner jobs in the bottom of the ship. And when we get organized and outspoken, the boss starts looking for people who are more grateful, and more vulnerable."
In late 2006, 300 guest workers arrived at the Pascagoula yard of Signal International, which makes huge floating oil rigs for the offshore fields in the Gulf. They'd been hired in India by a labor recruiter and given H-2B visas, good for 10 months. Signal charged the workers $35 per day for the privilege of living in a labor camp located within the shipyard. "Twenty-four of us live in a small room, 12 feet by 18 feet, sleeping on bunk beds," Joseph Jacob, one of the worker leaders, says. "There are two toilets for all of us, and we have to get up at 3:30 in the morning to have enough time to use the bathroom before going to work."
Signal put the Indian guest workers to work in the yard alongside U.S. workers doing the same job, and claimed it paid them the same wages. The guest workers say they were promised $18 an hour, but many were paid only half that after the company said they were unqualified. Signal CEO Dick Marler admits the company reclassified some workers after they had arrived, from first- to second-class welders, and then reduced their wages. Signal deemed six of the workers incapable and announced that it would send them back to India -- a move that portended financial ruin for the workers.
The MIRA asked a Hindi-speaking organizer from the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, Sakhet Soni, to come to Pascagoula. Together they helped workers organize Signal H-2B Workers United. Jacob was fired "because I attended the meetings," he says. "That's what the company vice president told me." Marler denies this.
On the day the six workers were discharged, company security guards locked them in what they call the TV Room and wouldn't let them leave. The MIRA went to the Pascagoula Police Department, and the police went out to the yard and eventually freed the workers. Outside the yard, dozens of workers and activists denounced the firings and mistreatment. The MIRA organized picket lines, and its attorney, Patricia Ice, started a legal defense campaign with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The company said it had used the H-2B system because it couldn't find enough workers after the hurricane. Other contractors have used the same rationale. "We've learned about case after case of workers in Mississippi, Louisiana, and all along the Gulf in these conditions," Chandler says. "There are thousands of guest workers who have been brought in since Katrina and subjected to this same treatment. Mexican guest workers in Amelia, Louisiana, were held in the same way. They also got organized and came to Pascagoula to support the workers here when they heard what happened."
Organizing guest workers is part of an effort to build an MIRA membership among immigrants themselves. MIRA members get an ID card and agree to come to demonstrations and help others. When the national immigrant marches began in the spring of 2006, MIRA members and volunteers mobilized thousands of people for a rally in Jackson and even a march in Laurel, a poultry town of 18,881 people with a progressive black mayor. "There's still a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment here," Cintra says, "but when people give the police their ID card they get treated with more respect, because they know their rights and have some support." Curiel says the same thing: "In Kentucky, outside of Louisville, Latinos are afraid to go out into the street. In Mississippi it's different."
Not always that different, however. In Laurel and many other Mississippi towns, police still set up roadblocks to trap immigrants without licenses. "They take us away in handcuffs, and we have to pay over $1000 to get out of jail and get our cars back," says chicken plant worker Elisa Reyes. And the way the state's Council of Conservative Citizens demonizes immigrants is reminiscent of the language of its predecessor -- the White Citizens' Councils. Its Web site urges, "The CofCC not only fights for European rights, but also for Confederate Heritage, fights against illegal immigration, fights against gun control, fights against abortion, fights against gay rights etc. ... so join up!!!" The state's chapter of the Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement brought the Minutemen's Chris Simcox out from California to recruit at anti-immigrant meetings.
During the 2007 Mississippi elections for governor and state legislators, the Ku Klux Klan held a 500-person rally in front of the Lee County Courthouse in Tupelo. They wore the old white hoods and robes and carried signs saying, "Stop the Latino Invasion." Their presence was so intimidating that Ricky Cummings, a generally progressive Democrat running for re-election to the State House of Representatives, voted for some of the anti-immigrant bills in the legislature. When MIRA leaders challenged him, he told them that Klan-generated calls had "worn out his cell phone."
The Klan's Web site says, "Its time to declare war on these illegal mexican's. ... The racial war is among us, will you fight with us for the future of our race and for our children? Or will you sit on your ass and do nothing? Our blissful ignorance is over. It is time to fight. Time for Mexico and Mexicans to get the hell out!!!" The Web site also has links to the site of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement directed by Mike Lott, who sits in the state legislature, and the state affiliate of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
In 2007 Republicans introduced 21 anti-immigrant bills into the Mississippi Legislature, including ones to impose state penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers, English-only requirements on state license and benefit applicants, to prohibit undocumented students at state universities, and to require local police to check immigration status. Mike Lott sponsored many of these bills.
The MIRA, however, defeated all of the proposed laws. "The black caucus stood behind us every time," Evans says proudly. There are no immigrant or Latino legislators. Without the caucus, all 21 bills would have passed in 2007, as would have 19 similar bills in 2006.
The caucus didn't just wage a "vote no" campaign. It also proposed a series of pro-worker measures that would have abolished at-will employment (the doctrine that says employers don't need any justification for terminating workers), provided interpreters, and established a state department of labor (Mississippi is the only state without one). While these bills didn't pass, either, the difference between the caucus' and the Republicans' agendas is as clear as black and white, or perhaps, black/brown and white.
Although the political coalition in which the MIRA participates is powerful enough to stop the worst proposals, it isn't yet powerful enough to elect a legislative majority. Changing demographics is one element of a strategy to change that political terrain, but numbers alone aren't enough. Chandler describes three factions in the state's Democratic party -- the black caucus at one end, white conservatives hanging on at the other, and "liberals who will do whatever they have to do to get elected" in the middle.
After some Democratic candidates campaigned in 2007 on an anti-immigrant platform, the MIRA wrote a letter in protest to Howard Dean, national chair of the Democratic Party. Those tactics, it said, were undermining the only strategy capable of changing the state's politics. "The attacks on Latinos, initiated by Republican Phil Bryant a year and a half ago, and joined by other Republicans, are now being echoed by Democrats like John Arthur Eaves [the party's gubernatorial candidate] and Jamie Franks [its candidate for lieutenant governor]," the letter said. State party leaders who "would go along to be accepted, rather than show the courage necessary for positive change ... are peddling racist lies against immigrants that violate the core of the party's progressive agenda. We do not need politicians whose only concern is getting elected. We need leaders who will represent the best interests of all the working people of Mississippi."
Despite their anti-immigrant rhetoric, both Eaves' and Franks' campaigns were unsuccessful. Conservative Republican Haley Barbour was returned to the governor's mansion and Phil Bryant was elected lieutenant governor. Democrat Jim Hood, however, was re-elected attorney general, with a higher vote total than either Eaves or Franks. He was the only Democratic statewide candidate who did not mount an anti-immigrant campaign and who had earlier been convinced by the AFL-CIO's Jim Evans not to support anti-immigrant bills in the legislature.
In December 2007, Trent Lott suddenly resigned his U.S. Senate seat only a year after being re-elected to a fourth term. Barbour appointed conservative Republican Rep. Roger Wicker to fill the vacancy, and set the vote to choose a permanent replacement for the November 2008 general election
"We can't rely just on the demographic shift to win," says MIRA's Fleming, who plans to run for the seat. He notes that a winning majority in Mississippi would require about 80 percent of the African American vote, 20 percent to 25 percent of the white vote, and all of the growing vote of immigrants and other people of color. "But demographics makes it a viable race. We live in a conservative state where people don't accept new ideas easily, so the challenge for progressives is that we have to campaign and educate people at the same time. If we want people to move out of their comfort zone, we need a powerful message."
In Mississippi, that message focuses on jobs, health care, affordable housing, and the basic economic issues affecting working people in a state with one of the nation's lowest standards of living and lowest levels of social services. Immigration issues, Fleming says, are not some toxic topic to be avoided at all costs. "If we talk about it in the context of protecting jobs, wages, and rights for everyone, it's something that can bring us together."
Finding common ground among immigrants, African Americans, and labor is the pillar of the MIRA's long-term strategy. Jaribu Hill of the MIRA and executive director of the Mississippi's Workers' Center, has launched her own bid for election to the legislature as a Democrat and argues that winning in the South requires open discussion of race and civil rights, even if it makes established institutions -- including unions -- uncomfortable. Before she can start any campaign in the fish plants where the workers' center is active, she says, "we have to talk about racism. The union focuses on the contract, but skin color issues are also on the table."
To organize a multiracial workforce, the divisions between African Americans and immigrants need to be recognized and discussed, Hill insists. "We're coming together like a marriage, working across our divides," she says. Rhetoric calling the current immigrant-rights movement the "new civil-rights movement" doesn't describe those relations accurately, however. "Our conditions as African Americans are the direct result of slavery. Immigrants have come here looking for better lives -- we came in chains," Hill says. "Today Frito Lay wages in Mississippi are still much lower than [in] Illinois -- $8.75 to $13.75 an hour. This is the evolution of a historical oppression."
Immigrants, when they, too, are paid that lower wage, are entering an economic system that reproduces discrimination and tiers of inequality originally established to control and profit from black labor. They inherit a second-class status that developed before they arrived.
Jean Damu, a writer and member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, also warns that drawing a parallel between the situations of blacks and immigrants has its limits. "After all, who would want to claim that deporting someone to Mexico is the same as returning them to slavery?" he asks. "But the similarities are powerful enough to convince many African Americans that it is in their best self-interest to support those who struggle against black people's historic enemies."
For all the differences, Hill still sees a common ground of experience. "We're both victims of colonialism, we're both second-class citizens denied our rights. If people could see how African American people live here, they'd see it's like Bolivia or Jamaica. On the other hand, it's important for African Americans to understand why people come here -- because of what's happening in the countries they come from. If people had a choice, if they could live like human beings, they wouldn't have to risk their lives to get here. I don't believe any human being can be illegal."