Bishop, advocates oppose sanctuary cities bill

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – A bill that would keep agencies, cities and college campuses in Mississippi from offering sanctuary to unauthorized immigrants would not keep communities safe and goes against the Christian tenet of caring for those in need, said Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson.
He issued a statement Feb. 15 opposing S.B. 2710, also known as the “sanctuary cities” bill, which passed the state Senate in a 32-16 vote Feb. 9. The bill goes to the state House for consideration.
The measure would prohibit cities and institutions of higher learning from declaring themselves sanctuary cities. There are currently no sanctuary cities in the state, although the city of Jackson proposed such a declaration last year.
“As Christians we are called to welcome the stranger and care for those in need. As citizens, we are called to keep our communities strong and safe. We feel that the so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ bill being debated right now in the Mississippi Legislature damages both of those efforts,” wrote Bishop Kopacz.
In a sanctuary city, local law enforcement would not be forced to act as federal immigration agents, like the officers of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In fact, they would be prohibited from asking a person they detained about his or her immigration status. S.B. 2710 would prohibit cities from enacting sanctuary policies.
The bill’s opening statement says it would apply to entities such as “a state agency, department, political subdivision of this state, county, municipality, university, college, community college or junior college, or any agent, employee or officer thereof.”
Immigrant advocates said the bill raises several concerns.
Amelia McGowan, an immigration attorney for the Catholic Charities Migrant Resource Center based in Jackson, said the vague language, especially in relation to schools, opens up a number of potential problems.
“The first provision is potentially extremely dangerous. It could allow any state official, or anyone working for the state government to report any individual to federal immigration authorities. In other words, it prevents the state and local agencies from prohibiting its employees from reporting an individual to ICE,” said McGowan in an email to the Mississippi Catholic, newspaper of the Jackson Diocese.
“That means, undocumented – or suspected undocumented – individuals seeking services in any state or local agency – courts, police protection, K-12 education, higher education, state hospital, state health and mental health agencies – could be reported to ICE by a disgruntled employee,” McGowan explained.
It also means an agency “could not prohibit its employees from doing so,” she continued. “Now, presumably that person may be protected in some cases by privacy laws, but I am afraid that this provision would prevent individuals from seeking state services, which include reporting violent crimes to the police.”
According to Christy Williams, an attorney at the headquarters of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, in Silver Spring, Maryland, the provision also opens up municipalities to potential liability. A school employee who discloses a student’s immigration information could be violating federal privacy laws and the school could be held liable.
If any officer reports a person they suspect is in the country without legal permission but that person turns out to have a valid legal status, the local agency can be sued. CLINIC highlighted one example from Allentown, Pennsylvania, when officers arrested a U.S. citizen for alleged drug crimes.
“He had both his driver’s license and Social Security card with him at the time of the arrest and was eventually found innocent,” according to a CLINIC document about sanctuary cities. “During his time in custody, the police called ICE based on the presumption that, because of his race, he was undocumented.
“Despite being documented, the citizen was held for three days after posting bail based on an ICE detainer. He was released only after an ICE agent interrogated him and confirmed his citizenship. The U.S. citizen sued local and county officials in 3rd District Federal Court, leading to verdicts in his favor and settlement costs totaling nearly $150,000,” the document said.
When a local agency reports someone to ICE, the federal agents may ask the local agency to detain the suspect. The local agency has to absorb the cost of housing, feeding and caring for the person until ICE can process the case. That money is rarely reimbursed to state and local agencies.
Critics of the Mississippi bill say that because it is vague, it also could erode the relationship first responders have with their communities. If immigrants, even those in the country legally, believe police officers, medical personnel or firefighters are going to report them to immigration officials, they may hesitate to call for much-needed help.
McGowan said she thinks if the bill becomes law, it “would have a chilling effect on individuals seeking state services” such as medical care, mental health care and police protection,” and would negatively affect immigrants’ educational opportunities. She also thinks it would subject victims of violent crimes and/or abuse “to greater danger.”
President Donald Trump has pledged to strip federal funds from jurisdictions that declare themselves “sanctuary cities.”
“We urge lawmakers and advocates to oppose S.B. 2710,” Bishop Kopacz said in his statement. “We will, as a Catholic community, continue to work with immigrants and refugees – welcoming their contributions to our community and culture – even as we pray for a just solution to the challenges of immigration and security.”
(Editor’s note: the full text of the statement is available here.)

Legislative look-back: busy year for advocates

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – This Mississippi Legislature wrapped up the 2016 session Thursday, April 21. Bishop Joseph Kopacz and the Catholic Charities Poverty Task Force were very active on a number of issues this year including immigration, budget cuts and abortion. Here is a look at some of the key issues that came out of the session:
A new law to prohibit dismemberment abortions in the state becomes effective July 1. On April 15, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the Unborn Child Protection From Dismemberment Abortion Act, passed by the state Senate in a 40-6 vote in March and by the state House 83-33 in February.
“We applaud any effort to end abortion in our communities and will continue to support women in crisis through our efforts with Catholic Charities, adoption services, parish-based ministries and supporting organizations such as Birthright,” said Father Kevin Slattery, vicar general of the Diocese of Jackson. “There are many faithful people out there working to give women the choice of life,” he said in a statement. “We hope we can continue to build and strengthen those ministries for people in need.”
Mississippi is the fourth state to enact the measure, after West Virginia, Kansas and Oklahoma. According to National Right to Life, the legislation – based on the pro-life organization’s model bill – also has been introduced in Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri and Nebraska and may be taken up in several other states.
The procedure is a form of second-trimester abortion that “dismembers a living unborn child and extracts him or her one piece at a time from the uterus.” It is called a D&E for “dilation and evacuation.” It is different from the partial-birth abortion method used in late-term abortions, which is now illegal in the United States.
During Catholic Day at the Capitol earlier this year, advocates spoke about the need to support mental health programs, education and foster care. The state’s foster care agency was being threatened with federal takeover due to a lack of qualified workers, seemingly insurmountable backlogs and several deaths which might be attributed to child abuse.
The budget passed by the Legislature cut seven million dollars from the budget to cover mental health, about three percent, but there was some good news.
The bright spot, according to Jeannie Donovan of Jesuit Social Research institute, is that the foster care system did get spun off into it’s own department with its own budget. “Foster care funding did get increased by $34 million to avoid a federal take over. Unfortunately, funding for Medicaid was decreased slightly despite a projected increase in costs,” said Donovan.
Another presentation at Catholic Day explained how regressive taxation disproportionately impacts the poor. This year, the Legislature approved cuts to almost every department while cutting taxes and, at the same time, borrowing money. The Clarion-Ledger newspaper printed a front-page editorial calling the proposed budget ‘madness.’ Other advocates expressed similar dismay about the way the combination of cuts and borrowing would impact the state in the years to come.
The Legislature passed several tax cuts to benefit large corporations, but did not pursue any tax reform that would lift the burden on lower-income families in Mississippi. Two-thirds of the tax cut passed will go to corporations.
According to the Hope Policy Institute, a non-profit advocacy group working to alleviate the causes of poverty in the region, “most corporations in Mississippi already pay very little in corporate taxes. The franchise tax, which is eliminated in this tax cut, currently makes up 44 percent of corporate taxes collected. Three out of four corporations currently pay less than $150 in corporate income taxes, and will thus pay zero when the three percent bracket is eliminated.
“The other one-third of the cut will go to Mississippians who owe personal income taxes. The maximum tax cut per individual is $150 from the cut.  However, many of the working families who need relief the most, will not benefit from the plan at all,” according to a Hope analyst.
Revenue for fiscal year 2016 fell short of projections, causing the Governor’s office to make cuts to the existing budget. The Mississippi Adequate Education Fund got level funding, but the amount is still an estimated $170 million below “full-funding” of the formula.
“The combination of the new tax cuts and existing lack of adequate funding for public services, it seems that this Mississippi Legislature put the state on a path a fiscal crisis similar to what we’re now dealing with in Louisiana,” said Donovan
Guns in Church
Despite a new law that would allow people to carry their firearms into church, the Diocese of Jackson will maintain its current policy banning firearms and other weapons inside places of worship, schools, offices and service centers.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz does not feel there is any need to have firearms, whether they are concealed or publicly displayed, inside church-owned property.
“We are here to worship and to serve,” said Bishop Kopacz. “I understand that some parishes have private security officers and off-duty law enforcement officers patrolling their property, and that’s fine, if those people are from licensed security agencies with proper training, background checks and gun permits, but I see no reason for a gun to be inside a sanctuary or school, especially an unpermitted one,” he added.
Governor Bryant signed a law that would allow churches and other religious institutions to allow select certain members to undergo training and carry firearms inside their buildings, even without concealed weapon permits, however it remains diocesan policy not to have any firearms in diocesan and parish buildings except in those cases where the parish or institution has hired a licensed security company. There are to be no parishioners or parents patrolling their facilities with guns.
Senate Bill 2306, which Bishop Kopacz opposed, died Tuesday, April 19. The bill called for 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. The local officers would have to notify federal authorities to come pick up the suspect.
“Our impetus in opposing the bill was to support our clients. Under this bill, if someone was stopped without their drivers’ license they could be detained and transferred to ICE (Immigration and customs enforcement) custody,” explained Amelia McGowan, program director and immigration attorney for the Migrant Support Center for Catholic Charities in Jackson. It 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 bill author Sean Tindal (R-Gulfport) felt the state should be doing more to enforce immigration laws.
McGowan joined an effort spear-headed by Church World Service to speak out against the bill. Noel Anderson, the national grassroots 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 Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves’ office. Other advocates delivered copies to Senate Judicial Chair Tindal and House Chair Mark Baker.
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. SB 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 puts 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. 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,” it reads. (EDitor’s note: coverage of other legislative issues, such as HB1523, the religious liberty bill, is available on