August 28, 2007

State needs immigration agents, report says

By Natalie Chandler

State Auditor Phil Bryant

State Auditor Phil Bryant recommends Mississippi create a "comprehensive public safety plan for crime related to illegal immigrants" in a new report that encourages the state to request more federal immigration agents.

But Bryant, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, noted that few statistics exist that document crime involving illegal immigrants in the state. He has made immigration issues a campaign priority. And while political watchers said his report provided a legitimate campaign opportunity, immigration-rights advocates blasted it as a racist way to pander for votes.

The most significant finding of the report, Bryant wrote, "is the inconsistent collection of statistical information regarding the number of illegal aliens and the crimes they commit across the state of Mississippi. Consequently, there is limited or no comprehensive data available about criminal aliens."

No one knows for sure how many illegal immigrants are living in the state. Bryant's 2006 performance audit estimated they compose about 4 percent of the population.

Some of his latest recommendations include considering laws to deter immigrant gangs, build prisons and prohibit brothels. The report does not say how many gang members are in Mississippi or if brothels exist in the state. It also does not say how many immigration enforcement agents are in Mississippi or how many more are needed.

"The finding in this report is similar to the finding in his last report, which cited statistics not based upon fact," said Patricia Ice, an attorney with Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. "No agency in Mississippi appears to keep those statistics."

Bill Chandler, executive director of MIRA, said Bryant was using the report to gain votes "based on a fear of people of color."

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University, said it's a good idea for the state to count the number of illegal immigrants living here.

But he said that he hasn't heard of crime problems in counties where many Hispanics work in poultry plants.

"I don't think it necessarily a good thing to link undocumented Hispanic workers with crime," he said. "It's starting to be a stereotyping type of thing. At some point, someone will do some research and, lo and behold, there will be no different crime rate than the general population, and that (theory) will be proven false."

Bryant said he was unsure how much taxpayer money was spent on the report. But he said crimes committed by illegal immigrants "take a lot of taxpayer dollars." Asked how much, he said, "We can't quantify that, because we don't have a number."

His comments came hours after his Democratic opponent, Jamie Franks, blasted him for not auditing contractors hired by the state to distribute Hurricane Katrina grants.

The Clarion Ledger, through public records requests, found that Reznick Group, the Maryland-based contractor managing the $3 billion Homeowner Grant Program, has spent taxpayer money on limousine rental agency services, pet boarding and airfare for spouses.

"Auditor Bryant can't find those same improprieties?" Franks, a state representative from Mooreville, asked at a news conference in Biloxi. "It is simultaneously shameful and noteworthy that while Gulf Coast homeowners desperately seeking grants to rebuild are being so closely monitored and scrutinized, Auditor Bryant is not holding state contractors to the same rigid standards of scrutiny."

"My opponent can say whatever he'd like, that's his opinion," Bryant responded. "I think (immigrants and crime) is an important issue."

To comment on this story, call Natalie Chandler at (601) 961-7075. ... /1001/news