Im­mi­grants show very lit­tle in­ter­est in Mis­sis­sippi

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY CHAR­LIE MITCHELL

Sev­eral can­di­dates this elec­tion sea­son chirped about im­mi­gra­tion. In Mis­sis­sippi, this was strange be­cause while le­gions of for­eign­ers may be com­ing to Amer­ica, they’re not com­ing here.

Let’s just con­sider the largest clas­si­fi­ca­tion: His­pan­ics. Cen­sus re­ports say 1/10th of 1 per­cent of all His­pan­ics in the United States live in Mis­sis­sippi. The ac­tual num­ber, which has re­mained fairly con­stant, is about 80,000, of whom two-thirds were born here.

Over­all, Amer­ica is 17 per­cent His­panic. The fig­ure for Mis­sis­sippi is 3 per­cent.

Big dif­fer­ence.

So why isn’t Mis­sis­sippi a mag­net?

That can be ex­am­ined from the two ex­treme per­spec­tives can­di­dates de­vised: 1. Im­mi­grants are hon­est, hard­work­ing peo­ple who seek only the op­por­tu­nity to pros­per — same as the na­tion’s colonists and many gen­er­a­tions that fol­lowed, or 2. Im­mi­grants are lazy, seek­ing to live off the la­bor of oth­ers by ex­ploit­ing pub­lic as­sis­tance or en­gag­ing in thiev­ery or other crime.

As to the first per­spec­tive, Mis­sis­sippi’s em­ploy­ment pic­ture is, won­der­fully, bet­ter than it has been for gen­er­a­tions. But de­tails mat­ter. Although the state is gov­erned by peo­ple who think govern­ment is too large, it’s ac­tu­ally the ad­di­tion of govern­ment jobs that has helped cut the job­less rate in re­cent months. New ar­rivals, le­gal or il­le­gal, find it dif­fi­cult to qual­ify for govern­ment po­si­tions.

Im­mi­grants typ­i­cally find em­ploy­ment in main­te­nance, food pro­cess­ing, con­struc­tion or farm la­bor. Most Mis­sis­sippi crops are ma­chine-har­vested. That’s dis­tinct from Florida, Texas and Cal­i­for­nia where many of the food crops are still har­vested by hand. That lim­its farm em­ploy­ment here. As for the other cat­e­gories, there’s some growth in Mis­sis­sippi, but more else­where.

Some­thing that should be a big draw for Mis­sis­sippi is that the cost of liv­ing is the low­est among the 50 states. A dol­lar, whether earned by an im­mi­grant or a cit­i­zen, buys a bit more here.

Over­all, though, it must be con­ceded that even if Mis­sis­sippi was poised to wel­come im­mi­grants with open arms and hearts — which is some­what less than ac­cu­rate — the new- bies would find their odds of em­ploy­ment are bet­ter else­where.

OK, so what about the op­po­site view — that im­mi­grants are sponges seek­ing to soak up all the ef­fort that went into cre­at­ing a good stan­dard of liv­ing in the United States, to take our jobs, to ex­ploit pub­lic as­sis­tance?

Well, as it hap­pens Mis­sis­sippi is the least-green pas­ture for bums.

USA TO­DAY re­ports that in Mis­sis­sippi the in­di­vid­ual cash as­sis­tance pay­ments via Tem­po­rary As­sis­tance to Needy Fam­i­lies (which re­placed “wel­fare”) are low­est among the 50 states and have been since 1996. Poor peo­ple can get a lot more free money else­where.

As for the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tional As­sis­tance Pro­gram (which re­placed “food stamps”), the news is the same. Mis­sis­sippi has a lot of poor peo­ple. The poverty rate is 25 per­cent com­pared to a na­tional rate of 16 per­cent. Al­ready 537,000 peo­ple (1 of ev­ery 6) in this state re­ceive SNAP ben­e­fits.

Does that mean they eat free? Not re­ally. The Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties re­ports the to­tal SNAP out­lay in Mis­sis­sippi breaks out to $1.26 per meal. That’s sig­nif­i­cantly dis­tant from the Amer­i­can av­er­age cost of $2.60 per meal. It’s much closer to what Mis­sis­sippi pays — $1.07 per meal — for a per­son serv­ing a sen­tence in a pub­lic or pri­vate prison.

It’s not hard to un­der­stand why a per­son pay­ing cash for gro­ceries is peeved (to say the least) when the per­son ahead in line — im­mi­grant or not — buys more ex­pen­sive items, has a bet­ter phone, nice jewelry and such and pays for the gro­ceries with a ben­e­fit card. But it does no good to be miffed at the re­cip­i­ent of a free­bie. The proper place to vent is at the peo­ple who de­fine, de­sign and man­age the as­sis­tance pro­grams.

That’s not what the can­di­dates want, how­ever. Their tac­tic — quite obvi- ously — was to prey on our sym­pa­thies, or al­ter­na­tively, on our fears and sus­pi­cions of “out­siders.” It wouldn’t do them much good if we re­mem­bered that year after year, pres­i­dent after pres­i­dent and Congress after Congress there has been an ut­ter fail­ure level to de­vise and put in place a ra­tio­nal, func­tional set of im­mi­gra­tion stan­dards. They wouldn’t like it if we knew Mex­ico has a bet­ter and more eq­ui­table set of im­mi­gra­tion laws than the United States.

Sim­ply said, we were not sup­posed to think it through and re­al­ize that the only ben­e­fi­cia­ries of our im­mi­gra­tion dys­func­tion are those who want cheap la­bor and who, as it hap­pens, are su­per-gen­er­ous in hand­ing out cam­paign cash.

A ma­gi­cian would call that the art of mis­di­rec­tion.

Well-played, can­di­dates, well-played.

Char­lie Mitchell is a Mis­sis­sippi jour­nal­ist.

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