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Immigration is in candidates' sights

In a season of divisive politics, North Carolina's leading candidates for governor seem to agree on one thing: the need to crack down on illegal immigration.

Democrat Bev Perdue is lobbying to lock illegal immigrants out of community colleges and charging her opponent with allowing illegal immigrants to work on public construction projects.

Republican Pat McCrory advocates arresting more illegal immigrants and demanding a new federal detention center to house them, while Republican mailers bash Perdue for "rolling out the red carpet for illegal immigrants."

With the economy flailing and a growing Hispanic population raising hackles, it seems the only mainstream political position is one that casts illegal immigrants as villains who commit crimes or siphon public resources.

This phenomenon has continued even as immigration has lost prominence as a major issue among voters. According to Public Policy Polling, a nonpartisan North Carolina firm, 2 percent of voters polled this month said immigration was a major issue, down from 15 percent a year ago.

And among Democrats, the restrictionist stance runs counter to the message of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has advocated a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and said they should be allowed to attend North Carolina community colleges. His popularity in the state has grown since taking those positions, polls show.

But political strategists say decrying those who have flouted immigration law is still a solid bet in a state with a growing Spanish-speaking population but only a small number of Hispanic voters.

"Citizens of this country want the rule of law respected, and they want the borders secure," said Marc Rotterman, a Raleigh Republican strategist. "People don't want to have to pay for health care or welfare or emergency room care for people who come here illegally. ... The overwhelming majority believe this is an English-speaking country."

McCrory, who is mayor of Charlotte, says schools, hospitals and other public facilities should begin demanding proof of legal residency so they can track the costs of serving illegal immigrants.

He promises to expand a federal program that allows local law enforcement agencies to detain illegal immigrants and begin deportation. The Mecklenburg Sheriff's Department, in his home county, was among the first to join.

Eight North Carolina sheriff's departments are now enrolled, and McCrory has promised to increase that number by raising state money and lobbying the federal government. He also says he will demand a federal detention facility for illegal immigrants, and will offer the government free state land to build it. The closest one now is in Atlanta.

McCrory says he will change a political climate in which North Carolina Democrats gnash illegal immigration bills and fail to push the issue in Washington.

"We've never seen the governor or lieutenant governor lobby on this issue," McCrory said. "There's a hesitation from many to even talk about it. No one seemed interested in finding out what the true cost was."

Perdue, lieutenant governor for eight years, had little to say about immigration before running for governor. But since her campaign began, she has fought to keep immigrants out of the state's community colleges, even at out-of-state rates. As a member of the State Board of Community Colleges, she successfully pushed to keep the doors closed while a consultant studies the issue.

In private interviews, her views are more moderate than McCrory's. "America has been built on the work and the prosperity of immigrants," she said.

Perdue said Congress' failure to pass immigration reform leaves the state in a difficult position. As governor, she said, she will lobby Congress to create clear national policies. Right now, she says states are putting together a patchwork of enforcement.

But as long as federal immigration policy is unchanged and immigrants remain "illegal," Perdue said, she will direct scarce public resources to legal residents.

The candidates' stances on immigration leave some voters, on both sides of the issue, cold.

Ron Woodard, head of the anti-illegal immigration group N.C. Listen, says McCrory hasn't spoken out forcefully enough on the issue. He said a study that McCrory undertook, to tally the cost of illegal immigration in Charlotte, resulted in no action.

And Woodard said that Perdue's stance on the issue appears disingenuous. "She's been in a position for eight years to have at least spoken out on the issue," Woodard said. "And I didn't hear anything out of her."

Those with more sympathetic views toward illegal immigrants have few options. Some left-leaning voters are choosing an unlikely candidate for governor, Libertarian Mike Munger. Public Policy Polling found that about 60 percent of Munger's supporters also plan to vote for Obama.

Munger says anyone who pays taxes should have the right to legal residency. He says immigrant workers are a benefit to North Carolina and that the backlash against them comes from xenophobes and corporations that want to keep a pliable, undocumented workforce.

At public events, Munger says, many voters tell him they support him because of immigration.

"I'm way behind in the polls, so I'm free to take the position I believe," Munger said. "It makes no sense to say, 'We're going to have an illiterate workforce that is also ripe for harvest by gangs and drugs.'"

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