Some non-citizens do bad things

by Amy Kingsley

Okay folks, I’m abandoning my usual light-hearted use of column space to address a political issue that has caused near hysteria in the Old North State: undocumented immigration.

In these pages last week one of our columnists, Jim Longworth, opined that illegal immigration had created such catastrophe that Gov. Easely should seize the Coliseum (after the NCAA regionals) as a holding cell for perpetrators.

His piece, coupled with a number of sensationalistic articles fronting the News & Record, has led me to the conclusion that many denizens of this state need to take a collective deep breath. Nobody is going to wake up tomorrow to telenovelas, forced Menudo lunches and some guy named Jose edging them out of their job.

Now that we’ve brought the amount of popular alarm back down to a reasonable level, let’s examine some of the recent local reporting about undocumented immigrants. A quick search of the News & Record database for the last year revealed 119 articles corresponding to the keywords ‘“illegal immigrants.’”

Several of them have to do with the issue of fraudulent driver’s licenses. It just so happens that the results of a recent poll revealed that local readers wanted more reporting on this topic. The newspaper never hesitates to point out the citizenship status of local criminals ‘— if they’re here illegally.

That said, the News & Record has also printed a number of articles by Marta Hummel (who recently left for Baltimore) describing the role of undocumented immigrants in our economy and the struggles they face. She and Lorraine Ahearn have reminded readers that not all undocumented immigrants are rapists, murderers and vandals. In fact, some rapists, murderers and vandals are even US citizens.

That brings me back to Longworth’s column. I lobbied for an editor’s note pointing out that Mohammed Reza Tehari-azar, the man who drove his SUV into the Pit at UNC, is an Iranian-born US citizen. Because Longworth didn’t explicitly say that Tehari-azar was an undocumented immigrant, the editorial board decided against it.

Several of the News & Record articles focusing on the misdeeds of local undocumented immigrants bear Taft Wireback’s byline. Wireback has written about Gilberto Cruz Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant charged with burglary and rape, and the problem of illegal immigrants who drink and drive.

I would like to see a couple of changes before Wireback and the News & Record publish another article pandering to the xenophobes who answered their questionnaire. The DWI series did use numbers to justify their focus on the issue, but the Hernandez stories never convinced me that illegal immigrants commit crimes and abuse the justice system in greater numbers than citizens. Either give me some hard numbers about the crime level among illegal immigrants or start identifying the citizenship status of all alleged perpetrators in crime stories.

North Carolina and Georgia boasted the largest growth in Hispanic population from 1990 to 2000. The growing pains are clear, and the media is responsible for making sure the issues are exposed and understood without stoking popular misconceptions. I’m afraid that between the headlines and nodding insinuations of many of our articles, uninformed readers get the message that illegal immigration and violent criminal behavior are linked.

The fact is that undocumented immigrants face many of the same problems as working poor who are US citizens, often exacerbated by a communication barrier. Both groups often struggle with inadequate or nonexistent health and childcare. They are also subject to abuse by unscrupulous landlords who take advantage of fear of law enforcement to relegate them to substandard housing.

Several anti-immigration activists allege that undocumented immigrants drain social services. I guess the truth of that statement depends on how you define the terms. My concerned citizen neighbor in Glenwood was always more than happy to call the local housing inspector every time our grass grew to unacceptable heights. The immigrant parents of Merissa Ayun, who suffered lead poisoning caused by chipped paint, likely never sought to exhaust this local resource until their daughter fell ill.

Children like Ayun, whether they are in this country legally or illegally, are our responsibility to educate. Teaching children, whether they are undocumented immigrants or citizens, costs money. Ditto for health care for the uninsured.

Undocumented immigrants, who often come to America seeking the same economic opportunity that brought my Irish and German ancestors here generations ago, are hardly freeloaders. They pay a variety of taxes and contribute about $7 billion a year to the Social Security system, according to the League of United Latin American Citizens. They are not eligible for public pension, Medicare or other Social Security benefits and many return to their native countries to retire.

North Carolina leaders are slowly moving in the right direction on this issue. They have relaxed regulations that once excluded undocumented immigrants from public universities. Now it is up to the public ‘— and the media ‘— to tone down the rhetoric and understand the lives that have become an essential part of our state.

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