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.
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 newbies 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 obviously — 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. Write to him at email@example.com.