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Candidates for governor want tough immigration rules

Editor’s note:After two terms in Raleigh, incumbent Gov. Mike Easley will leave office next year. This is one of a series of stories examining where the major-party candidates to replace him stand on several key issues the next governor of North Carolina is likely to address while in office. North Carolina’s primary is May 6.By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press
RALEIGH ó A state governor has no control over the nation’s immigration policy. But that fact isn’t keeping North Carolina’s major-party candidates for governor from pushing a get-tough platform on illegal immigration.
Both the Republican and Democratic hopefuls believe North Carolina must become more involved with efforts to curb immigration abuses in the state’s driver’s license bureaus, in the workplace and on campus. They feel the federal government has failed to pass the immigration reform measures the state and the nation need.
In surveys and interviews with The Associated Press, several candidates said they would provide more help to county sheriffs who want to enforce federal immigration law. They also want to require more proof of legal residence to obtain non-emergency state services or even vote.
“I think once people are illegal, they’re illegal,” said GOP Sen. Fred Smith. “While we need to have a soft heart for legal immigration, we need to have a firm hand when it comes to using the taxpayers’ dollars and upholding the rule of law.”
Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore said they would lobby Congress to work toward a comprehensive immigration package that would determine the future of the at least 12 million illegal immigrants who now live in the country. They’ll also consider suing the federal government, seeking reimbursement for the state’s costs of caring for those unlawfully in the country.
“Somebody is going to have the political courage to say we’re either going to let them stay here or we’re going to figure out a way to hire buses” to send them home, Perdue said. “I see that as a great opportunity for leadership nationally for us to join arms and to actually demand that the president and the Congress act.”
Illegal immigration in North Carolina has focused largely on Latino residents from Mexico and Central America, who came to the state primarily in search of work or to join family members already living in the state.
The state’s Hispanic population has increased eight-fold, from about 77,000 in 1990 to almost 600,000 in 2006, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But the number is likely higher ó estimates are from 700,000 to 1 million ó because of the transient nature of undocumented immigrants who live on the edges of society. A January 2006 study highlighting the economic impact of the state’s Hispanic population estimated 45 percent didn’t have permission to live in the country.
The candidates believe voters want them to act on the issue and don’t feel they can afford to be perceived as unwilling to enforce the law. An Elon University poll of North Carolina adults conducted last week found that immigration was the fourth most important issue heading into the primary, behind only the economy, gas prices and K-12 education.
“North Carolinians as well as other Americans get it that it’s the federal government’s job,” said Ron Woodard, director of NC LISTEN, a Cary-based group of about 1,000 members that lobbies for less immigration. “But they also want their state government to act in a sensible way to help the federal government.”
Five of the candidates got an early chance to talk about immigration last fall when the state community college system told its 58 campuses that it couldn’t deny admission to illegal immigrants. The five quickly came out against the policy, even as incumbent Gov. Mike Easley defended it and said the children of illegal immigrants shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ decision to enter the country.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, another Republican candidate, joined the opposition when he entered the race in January. All six said in interviews with the AP they would work to repeal the policy if elected and would oppose efforts to extend a similar policy to University of North Carolina system.
“If someone is here illegally, and I know that they’re here illegally as governor, I can’t bend the law and say, ‘You ought to be able to come here, and you ought to be able to do this,’ ” Moore said. “We are a nation of laws. It just doesn’t work.”
It appears that few benefit from the community college policy. When admission was optional, only 340 students ó or 0.1 percent of the people earning degrees in the system ó were illegal immigrants. And they must pay the higher out-of-state tuition.
“When they finish their degree, we are not adjusting their (legal) status,” said Nolo Martinez, Easley’s former director for Hispanic and Latino Affairs. He calls the discussion of this and other immigration topics by the candidates “shallow and very uninformed.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, said he would consider legal action to seek reimbursement from the federal government to cover the costs of teaching illegal immigrants in the state’s public schools, providing them with medical care and incarcerating adults who are convicted of felonies. That could be as much as $500 million annually, he said.
“If the federal government will not perform its constitutional responsibilities for handling immigration, then our taxpayers are entitled to reimbursement,” Orr said.
Candidates in both parties support expanding the number of local law enforcement agencies to enter into a program, known as 287(g), that trains officers to enforce federal immigration laws. Five North Carolina police or sheriff’s departments already participate in the program, largely by using federal databases to check the immigration status of people arrested on unrelated crimes.
The candidates also said they’ll seek more assurances that people lawfully in the country are the only ones who receive driver’s licenses ó even though the federal government already has ordered North Carolina to reaffirm the identity of all driver’s license holders through the Real ID Act.
Salisbury attorney Bill Graham isn’t convinced the problems with driver’s licenses are resolved. He said he spoke with a law enforcement officer recently who told him he arrested someone with five valid state driver’s licenses, all with different names.
“How do you know who that person is? How do you know he’s one of the five?” Graham asked.
Graham and Smith are interested in laws passed by other states such as Oklahoma and Georgia that requires employers to verify the immigration status of their employees and sanctions those companies that hire illegal immigrants.
Martinez, who works at the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, doesn’t criticize efforts to better enforce the law.
But he worries about the effect a focus on immigration will have on illegal immigrants who worry they will be deported if they call the police to report a crime.
The next governor should focus instead working with other Southern governors to come up with national immigration solutions to present to Congress, he said.
“Just to have the banner of 287(g) or anything else as the solution is short sighted,” he said.

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