McCrory’s real legacy on Latino immigration

Jorge Ramos participates in a rally at the Executive Mansion to demand that Gov. Pat McCrory pull North Carolina out of a lawsuit against President Obama’s executive action on immigration.
Jorge Ramos participates in a rally at the Executive Mansion to demand that Gov. Pat McCrory pull North Carolina out of a lawsuit against President Obama’s executive action on immigration. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The recent protest of pro-immigrant advocates at Gov. Pat McCrory’s Executive Mansion seemed to be business as usual in the Tar Heel state, where Republican politicians have united behind an agenda of immigration control and enforcement. Most recently, they have targeted so-called “sanctuary cities” with their predominantly Latino immigrant populations as well as Syrian refugee resettlement efforts.

Yet amid McCrory’s insistence that reporters use the term “illegal” rather than “undocumented” and Latino protesters’ signs asking him to “Stop the Hate,” it is easy to forget that McCrory and Latinos used to rally together. During the first decade of his mayoral term in Charlotte, McCrory himself and his allies in the business community encouraged, praised and benefited from Latino immigration to North Carolina.

McCrory’s political websites rightly boast that, “Charlotte’s economy flourished during his time as mayor as he helped bring tens of thousands of jobs to the region” by recruiting companies such as TIAA-CREF and the Westin Hotel. But Charlotte’s growth and McCrory’s ability to lure such companies depended on the availability of a labor force to build and clean those buildings and bring up the new housing that gave the area a much lower cost of living than traditional financial centers like New York.

That labor was performed heavily by Latinos, not all of them documented, and McCrory knew it. He courted the Latino community’s good will toward the city, speaking at Latino community events whenever asked. At Charlotte’s Latin American Festival in 1997 – an event sponsored by economic powerhouses Nations Bank, BellSouth and Coca Cola, among others –McCrory spoke to a crowd of 16,000. “We should recognize that the Latinos are the fastest growing and most vital segment among the minority groups,” he proclaimed publicly, “and that it is new blood that revitalizes and gives new ideas to this community with their energy and work.” The image was a far cry from his now-preferred term “illegal” and insistence on immigrants’ association with drug cartels.

A welcome labor pool

Though the governor claims he has always supported legal immigration but not illegal, Charlotte’s economy thrived and his career benefited from policies that welcomed immigrant labor whatever its status. Under McCrory’s watch, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office instituted a policy to check the immigration status of anyone arrested for any reason, but the Charlotte Police Department declined to do so, preferring to retain the trust of the immigrant community – in other words, the very type of “sanctuary city” policy McCrory has just outlawed. The welcome mat was out, the immigrants came with or without papers, and the city flourished economically.

Paradoxically, it was this very economic “revitalization” of Charlotte, bolstered by Latinos, that allowed McCrory to nurture statewide ambition. Setting his sights on North Carolina’s Executive Mansion, McCrory turned his back on Latinos around 2005. That year, he appointed an Immigration Study Commission to provide political cover for his growing ambivalence on the issue, and by 2006 he was openly speaking out against Latino immigration.

When McCrory falsely asserted in 2008 that 50 percent of babies born at Carolinas Medical Center were Latino and that 20 percent of Mecklenburg County jails’ inmates were undocumented immigrants, Charlotte’s Spanish-language newspaper, La Noticia, lamented the betrayal of its community’s onetime ally. “We the Latinos have changed in the eyes of McCrory,” wrote the paper’s editors. “In the 1990s we were a hard-working community, with family values, needed to build downtown Charlotte. Now that it has all been built, he is using us for a different purpose”: to court voters from the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant wing.

Cities like Durham, Chapel Hill and McCrory’s onetime home of Charlotte have taken responsibility for their dependence on Latino labor through their commitments to the public safety of all their residents regardless of immigration status. President Obama has done the same through his executive actions to protect undocumented immigrants with roots in the United States from deportation.

When a reporter asked McCrory recently whether he had any empathy for immigrant families, the governor insisted, “The people who are bringing their kids to our country have to be thinking of these ramifications.” But it is McCrory who failed to think of the ramifications when he built his career on the economic success of an immigrant-dependent metropolis. It’s time for the governor, whose economic leadership went hand-in-hand with his welcoming attitude toward Charlotte’s Latino workforce, to stop punishing the very same people who answered his call.

Julie M. Weise is assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon and author of “Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910.”