RALEIGH — A special House panel on immigration reform dissolved abruptly Thursday without any major legislative recommendations, an indication that Republican lawmakers are confounded by the politics of the contentious issue and reticent to follow the lead of other states by cracking down on illegal immigrants.
In a brief report, the committee recommended that lawmakers approve nonbinding resolutions in the next session urging the state’s congressional delegation to revise federal immigration laws and enforce security along its borders. As for legislation, the committee said lawmakers should “continue to review and revise previously introduced ... legislation and solicit input from a wide array of stakeholders.”
“There are specific bills being written by individual members ... and so we decided not to pre-empt them in our report and be broad and general,” said Rep. Frank Iler, an Oak Island Republican and committee co-chairman.
The report surprised advocates on both sides of the debate given the heated atmosphere that surrounded the committee. Three Latino advocates were arrested for an outburst at a committee meeting earlier this year where a Republican lawmaker suggested illegal immigrants bring crime to the state.
“I was really shocked,” state Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat on the committee, said of the result. “We ended up back at square one.”
The committee’s inaction reflects the thinking from state House GOP leadership, which is not interested in pushing a major overhaul of immigration rules next year.
House Speaker Thom Tillis did not return calls seeking comment. But the Cornelius Republican, who is a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014, told the Wilmington Star-News this week that North Carolina must consider the potential economic impacts of any immigration legislation and shouldn’t follow states like Arizona and Georgia.
“We have several other states that I think moved out ahead of their blockers, and probably created as many or more problems than they theoretically fixed, and we can learn from that,” Tillis told the newspaper.
The issue demonstrates how Republicans will face challenges next year, even with one-party rule. Immigration divides Republicans into two camps – strident ideological conservatives who want stricter laws and chamber-of-commerce lawmakers who don’t want to hurt major industries that rely on immigrant labor, such as construction and agriculture.
Peter Siavelis, the director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University, says the mood among GOP leaders is an electoral calculation and reflects moderation happening at the national level, too.
“Given what happened in the national election and the importance of the Latino vote, there are new cautions in doing anything really radical,” he said. “This is a pretty reactionary state House and Senate but I still think they see where the bread is buttered nationally.”
According to November election exit polls, Latinos accounted for 4 percent of North Carolina’s vote, with 68 percent favoring President Barack Obama, which essentially mirrored the national trend.
Earlier this year, the committee met numerous times and heard passionate testimony at a public hearing in June. At the end of the meeting, Republicans put a hold on the committee’s deliberations until after the U.S. Supreme Court decision on an Arizona immigration law. But the panel never met again before presenting its report.
Republican lawmakers are still expected to introduce legislation to make it harder for illegal immigrants to live in North Carolina, and some smaller efforts may win approval.
One of the bills being drafted for the legislative session in January would tighten rules that require businesses to check the immigration status of employees. Another would make it a misdemeanor crime if state or local government employees don’t report immigration violations. Iler said he is working on his own legislation.
Ron Woodard, the director of N.C. Listen, an advocacy group pushing for tougher immigration laws, said he was disappointed by the committee’s report. “Most things are about money and power,” he said, blaming the business community for neutering the effort.
On the other side, advocates for immigrants “are optimistic that the General Assembly may understand that we need to have a balanced approach and you just can’t kick them out,” said Lacey Williams with the Latin American Coalition.