Joining a nationwide trend, Mississippi House members voted for a bill Thursday that seeks to crack down on undocumented immigrants. 

The bill, which passed with a 70-47 vote, calls for police to check the immigration status of people they arrest.

Leaders stripped more controversial provisions before the vote on House Bill 488. Next, the Republican-controlled state Senate is expected to pass it, and the governor has expressed support for the measure.

After initially failing, opponents of the bill were able on a second attempt to strip a provision requiring schools to count undocumented immigrants, saying it would violate federal law.

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House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, a Braxton Republican, denied opponents' claims that the measure was racist or immoral, saying it was about enforcing the law. Gipson said he tried to craft a bill that would survive court challenges and allow charity toward migrants.

"It's about the rule of law," he told House members. "We want to say you're welcome here, we just want you to follow the proper procedures, the proper protocols."

Opponents warned families would be shattered by deportations and that the bill would reinforce outsiders' stereotypes of Mississippi.

"If we pass this bill, it will set Mississippi back 60 years," said Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport. "Let us show America we are not the narrow-minded people they say we are."

No Republicans opposed the bill, while 10 mostly white and rural Democrats voted for it. They crossed party lines despite an appeal from House Agriculture Chairman Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, a rural white Democrat who warned the bill would hurt farmers.

A provision that allowed law enforcement officers to ask about a person's immigration status in a traffic stop was removed. That means someone would have to be arrested for another offense before inquiries could be made.

"If they're stopped, that in itself will not trigger this bill," Gipson said. "It would require an arrest to be made. If they are found to be unlawful, then they would be deported."

Among earlier changes was the removal of a clause that said people could be arrested for not carrying identification, a clause that had led opponents to nickname the measure the "papers, please" bill. That portion, like several others removed in committee last month, have been blocked by courts in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere.

During the debate that ran from late Wednesday into Thursday, Gipson also removed a provision that could have allowed municipal utilities to refuse power, water, sewer and other services to undocumented immigrants. Such a provision was also recently blocked by a federal court in Alabama.

Gipson said he was balancing the need to write a law that will survive court scrutiny versus the desire to remove undocumented immigrants.

"I have tried to bring the best possible product to the body for a vote," he said.

The changes did little to mollify critics, who continued to question whether the bill was needed. Opponents emphasize that Mississippi doesn't need to summon any ghosts of its racist past.

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Opponents in the House debate zeroed in on the possibility that parents could be arrested, leaving behind children who are U.S. citizens. Those who have fought the Alabama and Arizona measures have highlighted such problems.

"Your bill has nothing in it to show any kind of compassion or any kind of consideration for the children who are left behind," said Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs.

Gipson admitted that "some separations" were a possibility.

Mississippi has a relatively small undocumented population, although it appears to have grown in recent years. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that in 2010, the state had about 45,000 undocumented immigrants out of nearly 3 million total residents.

The bill is supported by Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who has been campaigning against illegal immigration since his days as state auditor. 

Proponents say the state spends more money providing services to immigrants than it reaps in taxes, and claim that undocumented immigrants, if they leave, will vacate jobs that unemployed citizens can take. They say the bill is about legal compliance and that they welcome legal immigrants.

Gipson denied any racist intent, saying he had helped start a Hispanic ministry at a church nearly 20 years ago.

"I have been accused of being a racist," he said. "I reject that."

Gipson earlier added an amendment that allows any church or religious organization to minister to "immediate basic and human needs." 

He told a questioner Wednesday that a soup kitchen could feed an undocumented immigrant every day and not run afoul of the proposed bill. But Gipson said that, "if the question is `Can they harbor these people?' the answer is `No."'

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has not advanced its own immigration bill.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

Photo: jimmywayne @ Flickr

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