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Border warriors dig in to defend the Carolinas

by Amy Kingsley

The 4Hers and Future Farmers of America descended on the NC General Assembly last week, turning the left quad into a sea of cloverleaf nametags and blue corduroy. They posed for pictures with legislators shuffling through on their way to budget meetings and generally got in the way of another, less color-coordinated interest group that had also chosen the day to air its concerns.

“I don’t want to compete with a four-H group,” said Mike Kelly of NC Voice, an anti-immigration group from Alamance County.

Kelly and his cohorts were there on a mission. The delegation from Alamance County arrived at 8 a.m. to urge lawmakers to approve a raft of requirements to discourage undocumented immigrants from living in North Carolina. The laws would make it harder for undocumented immigrants to find jobs, get housing and enroll their children in school.

Kelly joined a group that included William Gheen, the director of the political action committee Americans for Legal Immigration, Minutemen co-founder Chris Simcox and a khaki-clad detachment of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps from Myrtle Beach, SC. The group had already spent the morning lobbying the handful of legislators it pried from meetings with students. But the day’s main event was a rally scheduled to start at 11 a.m.

At least it was supposed to be a rally. Only about two-dozen people turned out for the event, which was staged on a walkway across the street from the legislative building. Attendees included a polite group of 4H members from Hoke County, many of whom had Spanish surnames. The Myrtle Beach Minutemen did not even need their bullhorn.

A parade of speakers – each one with a different rationale for increased immigration enforcement – passed behind the lectern. Some characterized undocumented immigrants as habitual drunk drivers and violent criminals. Others said they steal jobs from Americans and drain public resources. And one even portrayed them as victims of corporate profiteers.

Over the proceedings hung a sense of urgency.

“South Carolina is one of an unprecedented number of states passing enforcement legislation,” Gheen said. “From what we are hearing, there is a humane, rather orderly, but significant mass exodus of illegal immigrants from the state. Many reported they were returning home, but many said they were going to North Carolina.”

Which is exactly the kind of thing Kelly doesn’t want. He and Tristan Patterson, a candidate for Alamance County Commission who was defeated in the primary, paid an after-lunch visit to Rep. Dewey Hill (D-Columbus) to deliver their message personally.

They urged the representative to bring the 287(g) program to Columbus County so local sheriff’s deputies could act as immigration agents. And they implored him to vote against HB 2717, a bill that would bar community colleges from asking about immigration status. But the lawmaker from Down East, perhaps inspired by so many future farmers, had other things on his mind.

“One of the problems I have in Columbus County is the workforce,” Hill said. “I keep hearing from you guys that we have enough native workforce to do what we need. We do not. It’s beyond Americans’ dignity to work out in the field.”

Patterson, after his loss in Alamance County, followed his wife to Columbus County and is considering running against Hill. After the meeting, he politely disagreed with the veteran lawmaker.

“The people I’ve met in Columbus County are all willing to pick if they’re just given the opportunity,” he said. “I think [immigration] is the biggest issue facing our country if not our state.”

Pollsters would disagree. Between February and April of this year, the share of North Carolinians who named immigration as the state’s top problem in an Elon University poll dropped a half a percentage point, from 6.7 percent to 6.2. The percentage of those who said the issue would affect how they vote dropped six points. And most of those folks said it would affect the candidates they vote for at the federal level, not the state.

“It is a federal issue,” said Hunter Bacot, a political science professor and director of the Elon University Poll. “Which gives you some confidence in the ability of North Carolina voters to sort through things. In fact, voters in this state are notorious for doing so by splitting their national and state votes.”

Which doesn’t mean that North Carolinians are ready to embrace politicians who promote pro-immigrant positions. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) co-sponsored HB 2717 and legislation in 2005 that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to attend community college at in-state tuition rates.

“In 2005, the debate got really ugly,” she said. “And I think from the general public’s response, it’s gotten worse.”

Harrison said she was deluged with angry e-mails in 2005.

“We did not expect all the negative clamor,” she said.

It didn’t stop her from supporting the legislation that would overturn a decision by NC Attorney General Roy Cooper that said undocumented immigrants cannot attend the state’s community colleges. Which made her and her co-sponsors, Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) the targets of the anti-immigration lobbyists.

Kelly and Patterson urged the lawmakers they met to vote against HB 2717. After Hill, they crossed the yard to meet with Rep. Cary Allred (R-Alamance). The representative lunched on fried chicken, which amplified a resemblance to Colonel Sanders so uncanny it could be cultivated.

“I have introduced bills in the past to require someone to be legally present in the state to get a license,” Allred said between bites. “It went nowhere. I introduced law enforcement bills before 287(g) was ever thought of. It went nowhere. I introduced laws to require photo ID for voting. It went nowhere. I pretty much feel that you are wasting your time, to be blunt about it.”

Kelly, undeterred, continued his pitch.

“Have you heard that the state is giving money to El Pueblo?” Kelly asked.

“Yeah, I don’t agree with that,” Allred said.

“They’re a front group for La Raza,” Kelly said.

“Yeah,” Allred said. “The race.”

In fact, El Pueblo does not receive money from the state legislature, but has received grant money from the Governor’s Highway Safety Commission for a campaign to reduce drunk driving among Hispanics, said Executive Director Tony Asion.

Anti-immigration activists like Kelly have already won several battles in Alamance County, which participates in the 287(g) program through its sheriff’s office and has a wing of the prison dedicated to housing undocumented immigrants. Still, NC Voice is a decentralized enterprise that conducts its advocacy and investigations into unlicensed businesses out of the homes of its founders – Kelly and Kim Oliver.

They are one of several groups working on the issue at the state and local levels. In fact, the closest thing the anti-immigration side has to a unified voice is Gheen’s ALIPAC, a small group based in Raleigh. Which led to some confusion with Allred.

“Are you NC Listen?” he asked.

“No, that would be Ron Woodard,” Kelly said. “We are NC Voice, a grassroots group in Alamance County. As far as a formal group, we don’t have that.”

Which may be part of the reason the anti-immigration groups and their opponents haven’t been able to advance their agendas at a time when voters – particularly those prone to oppose immigration – worry more and more about economics.

“We appreciate what you’re doing,” Kelly said, “and we hope you can do it more vigorously.”

“I don’t know how I can be more vigorous,” Allred said. “I’m not interested in introducing bills for publicity’s sake and I don’t have time to lobby for someone else’s bills. But I’m with you on these things.”

With that he placed the remains of his lunch on the office floor for his dog and made for the afternoon session. Kelly, Patterson, Oliver and Jeff Newcomb of Cary crossed back through the lobby of the legislative building, now almost empty.

The anti-immigration camp may not have overwhelmed the legislature with numbers during its emergency immigration rally. But they still have the passive support of a majority of North Carolina voters according to polls conducted by the conservative Civitas Institute. And neither side of the immigration debate expects to see its legislation passed this summer, which leaves the issue in a kind of limbo unlikely to be resolved at the state level.

“I’m afraid it’s not going anywhere this short session,” Harrison said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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