Rosalinda Saldati, here with her daughter, owns a small grocery store in East Biloxi catering to Hispanic customers. Many of her regulars say they are leaving Mississippi because of a new law that would make working illegally a felony, she reports.
Workers hoping to get picked up for day work wait outside the Home Depot in Gulfport, Miss. Many are in the country illegally and say they are thinking of returning to their home country, Honduras, because of the new law.
It's after 8 a.m. at the Home Depot in Gulfport, Miss. Eight men, all from Honduras, are the only ones left in front of the megastore. A few dozen already have been picked up for day work.
"There was tons of work when we first got here right after Katrina," says one of the men, who doesn't want to give his name because he is in the country illegally. He says in those days, the police would escort workers to jobs in the disaster area.
"Now the police come and chase us out of here, arrest us and hassle us all the time. I can't believe that they would throw us in jail for five years just for working. Everyone was so happy to have us here when we were doing the dirty work."
He's referring to a new law in Mississippi that makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to use false documents to get a job.
Hope for 'Self-Deportation'
Phil Bryant is Mississippi's lieutenant governor. Back in 2005, he was the state auditor and one of the first to speak out about the costs of illegal immigration, which he estimated at about $25 million annually. His strong support for the illegal worker crackdown has raised his political profile and gained him a loyal following.
It also won him detractors. He likes to pokes fun at them and himself, as he did during a recent luncheon in Biloxi:
"Now I know a lot of people say, 'Oh, he's xenophobic and he's racist and all that.' ... I thought [xenophobic] was a musical instrument. I'm none of those things," he said. "I have learned all my life about the rule of law."
Starting July 1, businesses in Mississippi with at least 250 employees must use the federal government's E-Verify database to see if a job applicant is authorized to work in the U.S. Smaller companies must gradually comply.
Businesses have complained that the system is error-prone. Even the governor, Haley Barbour, expressed concern as he signed the bill into law.
But Bryant insists the system is reliable. And he believes most illegal immigrants will just leave the state on their own when faced with the threat of jail time for using false documents to get a job.
"What we hope to do is what's called self-deportation," he says. "We hope that illegals from all over the world that come here, that cross our borders and violate our federal and state laws will say, 'Don't come to Mississippi to do that because, you know, they have a very strict law.' "
Rosalinda Sandati has already seen the impact. She owns a small grocery store in East Biloxi catering to Hispanics.
"A lot of people is moving to other states," she says. They told her they're leaving because it's already hard to find a job. "The law is real hard."
Sandati opened her store last year. She started off selling cell phones and long-distance calling cards. She's added everything from tortillas to cowboy boots and now supports her three kids with her earnings. Sandati says she prays every night that the Hispanics won't leave.
"God is the same for all of us," she says. "I don't know why the government is seeing another people different than the other ones."
Immigrants hang out in front of a coin-op laundry next to Sandati's store.
Everyone says work is getting harder to come by, but — surprisingly — no one has heard of the impending crackdown on illegal immigrants.
A couple from Guatemala say they don't have cable TV and don't watch the news. There are no local Spanish-language TV or radio stations along the Gulf Coast.
The woman says they try to keep expenses down so they can send $500 a month to their six children in Guatemala.
Her husband says they get on their knees every night and pray that the government will allow them two more years of work here. They just want to earn enough money so their children can finish school. Then, the man says, they'll go home.