Editorial: Respect for everyone

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

Jim Sides got some encouragement last week that he didn’t really want. A Post story said he wouldn’t rent to Hispanic immigrants if it weren’t for anti-discrimination laws, and by Thursday a couple of people had patted him on the back and said they agreed.

Problem is, Sides doesn’t agree with that stand, he says.

Were his words taken out of context or misunderstood? Did he misspeak? The answer matters less than the stand Sides, a Rowan County commissioner, wanted to make clear later in the week. It’s the illegal immigrants he would rather not rent to, he says. He has no problem with legal immigrants and in fact has extended a helping hand to some Hispanics here.

It’s an important distinction, one that’s impossible for the average person on the street — or landlord collecting rent — to ascertain. And as controversy has arisen on the subject of illegal immigration, all Hispanics have been painted with the same brush, whether they’re illegal, legal or are U.S. citizens.

Sides speaks with some compassion for his Hispanic tenants who are here legally.

“Yet, they’re looked at as though they’re illegal. They’re treated that way. … I know for a fact probably half the families I rent to are legal. The other half, I don’t know, I can’t legally determine that.

“If they’re an American citizen, they have the same rights anybody else has. I don’t think we have to do anything different for them.”

Some people have criticized the trip Sides and others took to Mexico with the Latino Initiative as a government junket, even though private foundations paid their expenses. Seeing the environment from which many of Rowan’s immigrants come helped some of the participants put the issue in perspective. It’s hard to deal intelligently with international issues if you never leave Rowan County.

The Latino Initiative is stirring discussion that might help longtime Rowan residents better understand the nation’s complex immigration problem. As Benjamin Navarette, a former police chief from Mexico, said in a visit here a couple of weeks ago, Mexico has 110 million people who never immigrate to the United States, and a much smaller portion who do — some temporarily, some permanently.

Legal or illegal, they have a big impact. North Carolina’s Hispanic population totaled 600,913, or 7 percent of the state’s total population, in 2004, and contributed more than $9 billion to the state’s economy through purchases, taxes and labor, according to a study done by the Kenan School of Business in Chapel Hill. They cost the state more in education, health and corrections costs than they contribute in taxes — $817 million versus $756 million — but so do native N.C. families who work for the kind of wages most Hispanic immigrants earn.

North Carolina would be in bad shape if they left, as one of the state’s hog processing plants learned last week. The day after an immigration raid at the plant, hundreds of Hispanic workers stayed away for fear of a repeat, and production ground to a halt. Legal or illegal, immigrants have become an integral part of our state.