Republicans now in charge of the state legislature are using their clout to push for new laws identifying illegal immigrants and limiting their use of public services.
That effort got its start Wednesday in the House Committee on the State's Role in Immigration Policy, which drew a crowd representing both sides of the controversial issue. The committee can recommend legislation to be considered next year.
For years, a legislative contingent has focused on more laws limiting illegal immigrants' access to public services - seeking to bar their admission to community colleges, for example - but they have had limited success.
Republicans won control of the legislature last year, giving their efforts new life. The wave of tough laws in other states such as Arizona and Alabama has given them another reason to act.
With other states tightening their laws, North Carolina could become a magnet for illegal immigrants, said Rep. Bert Jones, a Rockingham County Republican.
Arizona passed a law last year that made being an illegal immigrant and failure to carry immigration documents state crimes.
Alabama this year approved a sweeping law banning illegal immigrants from attending public colleges, prohibiting employers from hiring illegal immigrants, and voiding all contracts with illegal immigrants, among other provisions. Parts of the law are under court review.
No specific laws were mentioned at the committee meeting Wednesday, but the legislature has bills pending that would prohibit use of consular or other embassy documents as official identification, specify documents that must be shown to receive public benefits, and a put an identifying mark on the driver's licenses of people living in the country temporarily.
A comprehensive Arizona-style immigration bill has been filed, but has not been considered by the House or Senate.
Legislators seeking to crack down on illegal immigration tout the effort as a potential money-saver while detractors say the focus on tougher laws does little more than scapegoat Hispanics.
Though legislators and the two county sheriffs who talked about their work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify illegal immigrants said the efforts are not focused on Spanish-speakers or based on skin color, opponents of stiffer laws said it is clear that Hispanics are the targets.
Legislators should consider the labor and tax revenue contributed by Hispanic residents, said Ron Cox, president of Jesus Ministry of Charlotte. He attributed the increased focus on illegal immigration to the country's bad economy.
"Instead of looking for scapegoats or someone to blame, let's look for ways all of us can work together," he said. The Charlotte nonprofit brought several dozen people opposed to more stringent laws to Raleigh. Most wore stickers saying "I'm a citizen and I vote."
While Cox wanted to highlight a Kenan Institute report from 2006 that said Hispanics contributed $9 billion to the state's economy in purchases, taxes and labor, legislators were focused on figures from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, that reported illegal immigrants cost the state about $2 billion in services, including education, law enforcement and health care.
The federal courts require states provide some services to illegal immigrants. For example, children cannot be barred from public school based on their immigration status. Some provisions of the Alabama law have been blocked by federal courts.
North Carolina has adopted several immigration laws since 2006, but none as strict as those in Alabama or Arizona.
Ron Woodard, executive director of NC Listen, offered to send Jones information on how the state could limit services to illegal immigrants without running afoul of federal law.
"I'm delighted they're doing anything," said Woodard, whose group wants to end illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration. "When Democrats were in charge, any reform was put on the back burner."
Others were distressed to see the immigration efforts gaining prominence.
Carlos Cortez of Raleigh said the state should cooperate with residents, rather than drive them out of the state.
"There are people who are next to us who are contributing to the well-being of this state, to the well-being of this nation," he said. "We are the best nation in the world. We have the worst laws dealing with immigration."