An immigration measure that would let law enforcement officers check the immigration status of people who are stopped for traffic violations or other possible offenses is sparking intense debate and may be one of the most divisive topics of the 2011 Mississippi legislative session.
The issue is casting a spotlight on Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who can't seek a third term this year and is considering a presidential run in 2012.
He said during an interview in December that it's reasonable to let law officers check the immigration status of people who are stopped for traffic violations or other possible offenses. But he also said Mississippi benefited from immigrants' work during the massive recovery after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
"I don't think there's any question that we had a tremendous number of people come in, and I have no doubt some of them weren't here legally," Barbour said. "I don't know where we'd have been without them."
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who's running for governor this year, is among the most outspoken supporters of a bill making its way through the Mississippi Capitol. It would allow a law enforcement officer to check a person's immigration status during a traffic stop or other encounter, if the officer suspects the person might be in the United States illegally.
The three-month session is entering its third week, and the Capitol hallways already have been filled by people with strong feelings for or against the bill.
This past week, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance led a rally with about 80 people to denounce the proposal. Among the speakers was Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Johnson said many Latinos come to the United States seeking work to improve their families' lives, and the immigration bill could lead to racial profiling against anybody who looks Latino.
"Any legislation that discriminates against Latinos, discriminates against African-Americans," Johnson said.
The next day, tea party activists and other supporters of the immigration status-check legislation attended a Senate committee meeting to show support for the bill. Dr. Rodney Hunt, a Jackson-area surgeon, said 75 people stood and gave a sustained round of applause after the bill passed.
Hunt said illegal immigration creates security issues, and he believes people who come into the United States without going through the proper process are taking jobs from American citizens and from legal immigrants. He said he also doesn't want social benefits, such as food assistance, to be provided to people in the country illegally.
"There is a great difference in our minds between legal and illegal immigration," Hunt said.
If Barbour runs for president, immigration is an issue he'd certainly face repeatedly in a national race. In the pre-session interview, Barbour said he wouldn't commit to either signing or vetoing a bill without seeing specifically what's in it.
Barbour said the federal government is doing a weak job of enforcing border crossings, and that has created security problems in border states.
"Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas share a very long border with Mexico, and they have issues to deal with, we don't have to deal with," Barbour said. "So there are a lot of things that are very appropriate to put in the law in Arizona or Texas that are unnecessary here."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.