Smithfield Herald

Immigration debate comes to Johnston

From left, Sandra Wheeler, John Codella and Patricia Whitaker hold the signs they brought with them to Smithfield.
From left, Sandra Wheeler, John Codella and Patricia Whitaker hold the signs they brought with them to Smithfield.

Three people in the Seventh Congressional District came to Smithfield last week to support immigration reform.

The three, all from New Bern, visited Rep. Mike McIntyre’s office in a lead-up to Saturday’s “day of action” on comprehensive immigration reform. The movement sprang from the nonpartisan group Organizing for Action, which grew out of President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

The three want McIntyre to support the immigration bill currently stalled in Congress. That bill would create a roughly 13-year-long path for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship while strengthening border security. The three New Bern residents spoke with a McIntyre staffer who will relay their comments to McIntyre.

“We consider (McIntyre) to be an ally in terms of recognizing the need to more forward,” said Sandra Wheeler, 68, leader of Organizing for Action in Craven County.

Wheeler considers McIntyre an ally because of his focus on immigration reform. The Democratic congressman cosponsored the SAVE Act and the BRIDGE Resolution, both of which aim to decrease illegal immigration.

The Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill 68-32 in June. Since then, House leaders have said they will not bring the bill to floor for discussion or a vote.

Organizing for Action has been trying to reach House members while they are on vacation to gain their support of the bill. “We’re just hoping that everyone will make a decision to stand behind this bill in its current form as passed by the Senate and will push it forward rather than continue the partisan stalemates and leveraging,” Wheeler said.

In a written statement after a request for comment, McIntyre said the Senate bill would not reach the House floor. “The leadership of the U.S. House has said that the U.S. Senate-passed immigration bill will not be considered in the U.S. House, so there will be no vote on the Senate bill,” he said.

On his website, the congressman says he is committed to three principles of immigration reform, the first being to “reject amnesty and any legal status which pardons those here in violation of our laws.”

The Senate bill, he said, runs afoul of his principles. “Currently, there are 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., and the Senate bill would create a framework for providing amnesty to many of them,” he said.

But the three who went to his office said the bill does not provide amnesty. “Maybe a lot of people consider it an amnesty bill, but they haven’t read it,” said Patricia Whitaker, 75, a retiree who works with Burmese immigrants in New Bern.

To gain citizenship, the bill requires an undocumented immigrant to pay back taxes, including fees and penalties, learn English and pay a $500 fine, the three said. The process can take around 13 years.

“That is not amnesty,” Whitaker said. “That is working to earn your citizenship.”

John Codella, 62 and retired, said the bill does more than help immigrants; it enjoys the support of the business and law enforcement communities. “Hopefully (Congress) can get a bill through that’s encompassing and leads to citizenship for people,” he said.

Whitaker said her work with refugees from Burma is successful. “It’s an example of how a modern system for assimilating immigrants into our country can be very effective,” she said.

After three to six months of help, the refugees have jobs and support themselves, Whitaker said. “We’re putting an arm around these people who come here knowing nothing about this country,” she said. “We’re putting an arm around them, helping them walk, and then they just take off on their own.”