Church activists ponder ill wind on immigration reform

by Jordan Green

Chris Fitzsimon, North Carolina’s preeminent liberal pundit, and someone who has worked both sides of the political fence as a former reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer and spokesman for Dan Blue during his tenure as speaker of the House, presided in a classroom at Greensboro College before a group of mostly elderly Christians worried that the state’s immigration policies are veering down an extremist path.

Fitzsimon now heads NC Policy Watch, a subsidiary of the left-leaning NC Justice Center. “Our whole purpose of existing is to change the policy discussion on a lot of issues,” he told workshop participants who were among more than 250 people from who converged in Greensboro on May 13 for a seminar on immigration hosted by the NC Council of Churches. “There’s no issue that needs changing more than this one.”

The provocatively titled session, “Politics – Can You Be Elected Without Bashing ‘Illegals’?” fell at a timely moment. Only four days earlier the new Republican nominee for governor, Pat McCrory, had launched an attack against his Democratic opponent, Bev Perdue, for being insufficiently tough on undocumented immigrants.

Fitzsimon professed optimism on his political proposition.

“I hope we all believe the answer is, ‘Yes,'” he said, quickly noting that the current flashpoint in the raging battle over immigration centers on whether undocumented students, many of whom who have spent most of their lives here, should be allowed to enroll in North Carolina’s community colleges after paying out-of-state tuition.

“Judging by the rhetoric, you would think that undocumented immigrants were a huge drain on our community college system,” Fitzsimon said. “The fact is that undocumented immigrants are subsidizing our community colleges. And, as a taxpayer, it wouldn’t bother me a bit if it were the other way around.”

Hardly anyone engaged in high-stakes state politics has been immune to charges of being soft on illegal immigration. Republican candidate and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory found himself the target of a derisive YouTube video posted less than a week before the primary by the Raleigh-based Americans for Legal Immigration. The piece, entitled “We Don’t Need No Stinking Permits in Charlotte w Pat McCrory,” leapfrogged off a similarly colorful production called, “Pat McCrory’s Illegal Alien Party….”

The video’s script posed the question of why McCrory, who has proposed that a program in Charlotte -Mecklenburg County authorizing sheriff’s deputies to enforce federal immigration law be extended across the state, would “allow 5,000 illegal aliens and their supporters to gather outside of his office in Marshall Park without a single police officer, police vehicle or fire and rescue resource on hand, which is against city policies?”

Following his primary victory, McCrory relayed the heat to his opponent, lumping Perdue, the state’s lieutenant governor, in with Gov. Mike Easley even though the two officeholders are elected separately in North Carolina.

“The Easley-Perdue administration is wrong to tell the community college system to violate federal law and admit illegal immigrants to our community college system,” McCrory said in a prepared statement on May 9. He dared Perdue to propose legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to attend community college if she thought it would pass, and then heaped scorn on Easley, who, unlike the lieutenant governor, has come out in support of affording undocumented students access to community college.

“The governor is mistaken when he claims admission of illegal immigrants to higher education without specific action is consistent with other states,” the statement reads. “In 2001 California and Texas passed enabling legislation and eight other states followed with specific legislation, however, none of the enabling states are in the South.”

The problem with McCrory’s election-year play for anti-immigrant votes is that his claim about Perdue is decidedly at odds with reality; the two share the same position on community college enrollment. Perdue’s opposition was on record last November, before McCrory announced plans to run for governor. As Perdue campaign spokesman David Kochman said last week: “She does not think that illegal immigrants should be enrolled in our community colleges.”

As it turned out, the NC Community College System made a decision that might short-circuit some of the election-year posturing on immigration. Unbeknownst to Fitzsimon and the religious liberals gathered at Greensboro College, the community college system had issued an official memo the same day reversing a decision last November to allow undocumented immigrants to enroll, and instructing the system’s 58 campuses to follow the guidance of a 2001 memo “that states that post-secondary education is a state or local public benefit for which undocumented immigrants are not eligible.”

Fitzsimon tried to cheer up his audience by making the case that theirs was a mainstream viewpoint, writing a 1984 quote of President Reagan on the dry-erase board: “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time ago they may have come here illegally.”

He suggested that responsibility for public policy tilting away from those who would like to see a more compassionate approach lies with two actors: the Democratic Party establishment and liberal constituents themselves.

“I think we’ve kind of taken for granted that the other side is louder, and they’re ruder, and they have the politicians running scared,” Fitzsimon said. “I get far more complaints from Democrats than Republicans. They say, ‘What do you want – to have the Republicans get elected?’ They say, ‘Be quiet, and we’ll deal with it after the election.'”

Demeaning rhetoric against immigrants, legal and otherwise, and against Latinos in general has become ubiquitous in newspaper headlines and statements by elected officials, Fitzsimon said. The fact that those statements usually go unchallenged encourages even more outrageous posturing.

“When people in elected office, like the sheriff of Alamance County, say that Mexicans like to have sex with under-aged girls, and no one says anything about it we’ve really got a problem,” Fitzsimon said. ” I thought there was going to be a march on the sheriff’s office. No.”

Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson was quoted in the News & Observer in April 2007 as saying, “Their values are a lot different – their morals – than what we have here. In Mexico, there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-, 13-year-old girl…. They do a lot of drinking down in Mexico.”

Fitzsimon cited two county resolutions as examples of objectionable public policy.

In February, the Beaufort County Commission voted 4-3 to remove all foreign-language options from county government phone systems, and Fitzsimon noted that “Commissioner Hood Richardson proposed that county employees report the number of residents accessing health department services who have Spanish surnames, calling it a good indicator of ‘illegals.’ So he’s saying basically that anyone with a Spanish surname is an undocumented immigrant. That could be embarrassing if Mel Martinez, the former chair of the National Republican Party, comes to town.”

Another resolution approved by the Gaston County Commission in November 2006 instructs the county manager to “cease and desist local funding for any local programs provided to non-qualified illegal residents.” The resolution cited “creating havoc and death on our highways, increasing the crime rate due to lack of comprehension of the English language and inability to read and follow established laws; and lack of social and healthcare standards” as “impact issues” of illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, the Perdue campaign has expressed dismay at McCrory for misrepresenting the Democratic gubernatorial nominee’s position on access to the community colleges.

“It’s unfortunate that McCrory would stoop to such misleading attacks less than a week into the campaign,” Kochman said. “It’s a shame because we’d hoped to have a more honest dialogue about the issues.”

He insisted that Perdue’s opposition to allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in the state’s community colleges is not an election-year ploy designed to attract votes, but a position based upon genuine conviction.

“It’s a very difficult issue to deal with,” Kochman said. “It’s something that the fifty states are in a real bind over. The federal government has failed to take decisive action on people that are already here, and on cracking down at the border. She just believes that the state shouldn’t be expending its efforts on training people for jobs they’re not allowed to have. That’s what she thinks.”

Meanwhile, the children of undocumented immigrants are running out of options, said the Rev. Maria Teresa Palmer.

The director of the Multicultural Student Center at NC A&T University in Greensboro and former pastor at Iglesias Unidas in Chapel Hill said she has had to tell Latino high school students that they did not hold citizenship because parents could not bring themselves to break the news to their children.

“One young man, his mom was calling me, saying, ‘What do I tell him?'” Palmer recalled. “‘He wants to apply for a Social Security card. What do I tell him?’ He arrived in pre-kindergarten. Children are getting that bad news in ninth grade and tenth grade now because their counselors are asking them: ‘Is it even worth the trouble to help them get into college?’ I know some kids that didn’t get invited to attend a college fair.

“There are some students with fantastic GPAs,” Palmer continued. “They know they’re not going to college. Their parents can’t afford to send them to college. I’m working with a young lady that can’t get a driver’s license, so she can’t get to school. She has made honor roll every year. She’s an athlete. Her Spanish is not that good, so even if her parents could afford to send her back to her country of origin, she couldn’t function at a college level. I’m telling parents to delay graduation from high school as long as possible. Maybe your high school has a partnership with a community college. By all means, find a way to enroll in a vocational program.

“We have a lot of depressed young people.”

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