RALEIGH — A special legislative committee that promised a dispassionate review of the state’s immigration policies heard plenty of passionate words from immigrant advocates and their critics during a two-hour hearing Wednesday.
One by one, speakers came to the lectern to tell their stories for the first time to lawmakers. Pastor Sandro Pereira said he came to this country as an illegal immigrant but became a naturalized citizen. Giorrana Hurtod, an illegal immigrant, said she graduated high school and wants a chance to go to college. And Juan Ortega, also in the country illegally, said he is in high school looking for “a brighter tomorrow.”
Given the complexity of the issue, the committee decided to delay consideration of comprehensive immigration legislation until 2013, putting to rest for now one of the most heated legislative issues this year.
State Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican committee co-chairman, said it seemed improbable that lawmakers would consider the matter in the short session that convenes in May. He also said lawmakers wanted to wait for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s controversial immigration law – expected in June – before moving forward. “We may use best practices from other states, but it’s pretty up in the air as to what that is,” Iler said.
The immigration advocates – 27 of the 35 speakers – declared a temporary victory. “I think it’s a good step, a conscious step realizing that this is much more complicated and not something they can throw together,” said Irene Godinez with the Latin American Coalition. “It will give us a good opportunity to mobilize more opposition.”
The move reinforced the conventional wisdom that Republican legislative leaders wanted to avoid an elaborate fight on the issue amid the 2012 campaign season. “The word we’ve heard is this is going to be a short, short session and it’s not likely anything too controversial will come up,” said Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican committee co-chairman.
But the committee’s delay doesn’t mean other immigration legislation won’t get heard. Two main bills are still pending. One measure that passed the House and sits in the Senate bans foreign consular documents as acceptable identification papers. And another Senate-approved bill, which awaits House action, reinforces current state law that illegal immigrants are not eligible for government benefits.
James Johnson, the president of NCFIRE, a group that wants more stringent laws, told the committee he wants lawmakers to go even further than the current bills and called efforts in the 2011 session to address the issue insufficient. “Currently, North Carolina has little more than nothing to deter illegal aliens from coming to this state,” he said. “If we do not pass very strong immigration enforcement measures immediately, we will be unable to absorb the influx” of immigrants from other states with tougher laws.
Beyond the rhetoric, the divide among critics like Johnson and immigrant advocates was immediately apparent in the room. The competing interests sat on different sides.
The committee chairman later told the crowd that anyone who clapped would be removed and possibly arrested. The lawmakers kept tight reins on the crowd – even telling them to stop shaking their raised hands in silent applause. Three undocumented immigrants were arrested last month for disrupting a committee meeting. More than 62 people signed up to address the seven lawmakers who attended Wednesday’s hearing, with immigrant advocates dominating the crowd.
N.C.’s Latino population
North Carolina is home to a growing Latino population that more than doubled in the past decade. Nearly 60 percent of Latinos in the state are native-born or naturalized U.S. citizens, according to the census bureau. The state’s undocumented population – estimated at 325,000 – ranks No. 9 in the nation, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center report.
Maudia Melendez, a Latino advocate from Charlotte, started the speeches by trying to defeat misconceptions about the population, repeating the epithets she has heard from politicians.
“They said immigrants are here committing crimes. They are drug dealers, prostitutes. They are the ones who are bringing all the ills of the world to North Carolina,” she said. “I want to tell you … the immigrant community is a people of faith. … Stop calling them all the things you think they are.”
Her words didn’t seem to change any minds. The discussion quickly dissolved into familiar talking points, with each side quoting different parts of the Bible to prove their points as well as citing numbers and statistics to suggest that undocumented immigrants cost or contribute to a local community.
Even after the committee said it wouldn’t meet until this fall and adjourned, small groups of advocates on either side continued the debate in the back of the hearing room.