State lawmakers wrestle with ways to address immigration issues

By: - July 4, 2005 9:24 am

Fayetteville Observer
By Michael Wagner
Staff writer

RALEIGH – For two days, Rosby and her brother, Jesus, trudged across the grassy flatlands of southeastern Texas.

They drank from a creek they followed north from Matamoros. They ate nothing. Along the way, they passed animal carcasses on the banks of the creek.

They were bound first for Houston, and later North Carolina. Each carried a single plastic grocery bag packed with a change of clothes and a pair of shoes.

Rosby, who is now 23, was 17 when she made the trip in 1999. She was terrified, not of drowning in the Rio Bravo – where they crossed to the United States on an inner tube – but of getting caught and sent back home. She knew she could never make enough money in Mexico to buy a house or feed a family.

Today Rosby lives in Robeson County and works in an area plant. She gets health benefits, pays income and Social Security taxes, and has made enough money to buy a double-wide mobile home outside Lumberton.

"She thinks she’s living the American dream," says her brother with a smile.

But Rosby and Jesus are not legal United States residents. They spoke to a reporter on condition that their last names not be used.

They, along with their 62-year-old mother, live and work in North Carolina and one day hope to apply for citizenship.

Rosby and Jesus are not unusual in North Carolina, where thousands of undocumented immigrants live and work. Illegal workers are not a new phenomenon in North Carolina, but they are drawing increasing attention in the state legislature.

Several bills have been introduced in the legislative session addressing illegal immigration. One would have allowed local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Another would have required schools to ascertain the citizenship status of incoming students.

Most have been so controversial that they have died in committee. Still, they point to an emerging trend in North Carolina politics – legislation and policy decisions that attempt to deal with illegal immigration and its costs to the state.

"People are running on this," said Sorien Schmidt, a senior policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center, a political advocacy group in Raleigh. "You hear them talking about it in campaign ads. It’s getting the public’s attention."

2 bills left standing

Only two immigration bills still stand a chance of getting passed this session.

One would prohibit illegal residents from being able to pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges. It was folded into the Senate’s budget proposal and is being debated as part of the joint House and Senate budget talks.

The other is a bill that would strengthen existing laws that prohibit an undocumented resident’s ability to collect public assistance benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps.

The second bill has been compared to Proposition 200, which passed in Arizona last year. That initiative, shunned by politicians who were afraid it would be construed as racist, passed in a statewide vote, with more than 60 percent support. It requires state employees to verify the immigration status of anyone applying for government services or registering to vote.

In a recent committee hearing on the North Carolina public assistance bill, Rep. Wilma Sherrill, an Asheville Republican, said the legislature "couldn’t pass it fast enough in North Carolina" given the estimated $1 billion budget hole lawmakers are trying to fill.

The bill passed out of committee unanimously, but it has stalled on the House floor.

Immigrant advocates oppose the bill, calling it vague and an attempt to set a precedent for eroding the civil rights of immigrants. The House leadership pulled the bill, requesting a fiscal analysis to see how it may affect the budget.

"We’re using lots of dollars that should be used for our residents on illegal residents," said Rep. Julia Howard, a Davie County Republican and primary sponsor of the legislation. "There’s just a limit on what we the people can afford to do."

Andrea Bazan-Manson is executive director of the immigrant advocacy group El Pueblo, which is based in Raleigh. She calls Howard’s bill a "short-sighted attempt at dealing with a larger problem" that should be addressed by the federal government, where immigration laws are set.

Following the introduction of a bill that would have allowed certain undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities, Bazan-Manson and the bill’s sponsors received scores of hateful e-mail and phone calls.

The legislation, she said, touched off a wave of animosity toward the immigrant community.

But she said most of that talk has been based on assumptions and fears about the changing face of the state’s population. Because immigrants, including those who have come illegally, pay taxes and pay into the Social Security system, but are ineligible to receive government services, their cost to taxpayers is minimal, she said.

"It is a very, very easy issue to exaggerate about. Stereotypes and wrong facts are constantly being given to people," Bazan-Manson said. "These bills are being based on the stereotype and misperception that immigrants are draining our state resources."

Steven Camarota is the director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute in Washington. He says illegal immigrants do cost states money.

According to federal income tax data from 2002, illegal immigrants paid $16 billion in income taxes, but generated $26 billion in costs at the federal level, Camarota said.

He said the costs to states and counties are probably higher, since most services are provided for locally.

Still, he said, legislation restricting access to services makes little sense, since it’s unlikely to have much of a financial effect.

"The legislature is not in control of U.S. immigration policy," Camarota said. "But people are angry about the fact that people come uninvited, and this is sort of a response to that."

Once illegal immigrants are here, he said, "the costs are very difficult to avoid." Many are required by law, such as emergency medical care and public school education.

"Either you don’t let them in or you shut up about the costs," Camarota said. "But the state is caught between the interest groups and the general public. And they try to square that circle. … It allows lawmakers to say they’re doing something."

No accurate data

It is impossible to know how many illegal residents are in North Carolina. There is no accurate source of data and few illegal residents are willing to admit their immigration status to official data collectors.

But figures from the 2000 U.S. census show there are more than 430,000 people in the state who were not born in this country. They also show that North Carolina ranks first nationally in the percentage increase in foreign-born residents between 1990 and 2000.

Most of them are Hispanic.

Estimates on the number of illegal residents range from 300,000 to 500,000, said Ron Woodard, director of NC Listen, a grassroots organization focused on curbing illegal immigration.

"The problem is overwhelming our health-care system, our schools, and it’s taking jobs away from Americans," Woodard said. "That doesn’t make immigration a horrible thing. But it means the way we’re running immigration is a problem."

Woodard said states are becoming the front line for illegal immigration policy because federal legislation is slow-moving and so many of the laws – such as driver’s license requirements – that affect daily life are handled at the state level.

States are also bearing the brunt of the cost of the overall population increase with growing numbers of students in public schools and the steady growth in the cost of health care.

Although most undocumented residents stay away from any kind of government service for fear of being deported, including calling the police in an emergency, many will eventually go to an emergency room or health clinic.

Often, they are parents seeking medical care for a child or pregnant women who are giving birth.

Barbara Brooks is the interim director of the Department of Social Services in Hoke County. She said the county has undoubtedly paid for some deliveries by illegal immigrants, but has no way to tell how many.

Medicaid costs are on the rise everywhere, but how much of that is fueled by illegal immigration is unknown.

"I know that immigration has had an impact on it, but as far as narrowing it down I don’t know," said Amy Cannon, Cumberland County’s finance director.

The county expects to spend $11.8 million on Medicaid – which pays for health care for the poor – in fiscal 2005, which ended Friday, and is budgeting $12.9 million for 2006, a 9.3 percent increase.

Despite the lack of hard data on the economic effect of immigration, one elected official in Virginia said he sees increases in his county’s property taxes as a sign of illegal immigration’s toll on local resources.

"Our property taxes are going through the roof. What we’re trying to do is say: ‘Look, there’s not a never-ending amount of money you can take from the people,’" said David Albo, a Republican delegate to the state legislature in Virginia from Fairfax County.

Albo sponsored a bill identical to the public assistance legislation introduced in North Carolina. It was signed by the governor in April and takes effect Jan. 1.

Albo said northern Virginia, where his district is located, is being "crushed" by illegal immigration. Taxes are going up to cover the cost of building schools, he said.

Illegal residents are entitled to a public education and emergency health care, according to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision. They are not eligible for most other public assistance benefits, no matter what state they are in.

But Albo said they get through the system anyway by providing false information on application documents.

His bill, he said, "puts teeth around the law."

The bill won the support of the state employees who will be responsible for verifying residency status only after Virginia passed a law, also sponsored by Albo, that requires a person to show proof of citizenship to acquire a state driver’s license.

Woodard says the fact that North Carolina does not require a Social Security number in order to acquire a driver’s license is one reason the state has seen such a large influx of illegal residents in recent years.

He said Howard’s public assistance bill would "send a message that bad behavior is bad behavior. It says that we are serious about our law."

‘Hard work’

Rosby pulls a pad of paper toward her. She taps the pen against her forehead to think of the words, then writes them down.

"Hard work," she writes. She circles it.

"This is what my people do," she says in broken English. "This is why we come to this country."

Rosby goes to work each afternoon around 2 and gets off sometime early the next morning. She goes home, sleeps for a few hours, changes clothes, then drives to a four-hour English-as-a-second-language class.

She repeats the routine every weekday. On weekends, she works in a local restaurant.

Six months ago, Rosby got married. For her honeymoon, she and her husband drove to Orlando, spent a day at Walt Disney World and then drove back to Robeson County. They didn’t want to take a second day off work.

"I like to work," she says. "I am a hard-working lady."

She and her brother are saving money to buy their mother a house. They’ve saved money for her before. Two years ago, they pulled together $2,500 to pay what is called a "coyote" to help transport her across the border. It was only $500 for each of them when they came to America, but they had to pay more for their mother since she couldn’t make the two-day walk without help.

In Mexico, Rosby said, it would take her three months to earn what she makes in a week here. She and her four siblings shared a rented house. They ate tortillas with salt; they could rarely afford meat and produce. Soda was a rare delicacy.

Standing in her living room, with a photo of her and her husband in a Disney cartoon character frame, Rosby said she never wants to leave the United States.

"I want to learn the American anthem," she says.

"Never in my life have I dreamed I could have my own car, my own home," adds her brother, Jesus, who works in the same plant as his sister and owns his own mobile home down the road.

The two are planning a trip to New York City this summer to see the Statue of Liberty.

But they won’t go by train or airplane. They are afraid of having to show documentation. They live in constant fear of deportation.

That fear is why Janis Holden-Toruno, chairwoman of Hispanic-Latino Center of Fayetteville, questions claims that illegal Hispanics are siphoning public resources from legal residents.

"There may be some who abuse the system," she said. "But there are a whole lot more who don’t even try to use the system. They hear horror stories of people being sent back to Mexico."

Woodard, of NC Listen, said he understands the socioeconomic hardships people face in Mexico. But he said that does not excuse illegally entering the country.

He said the United States cannot be seen as a form of salvation for immigrants. The economy, he said, cannot support it.

"Everyone would like to think that everyone in the world should have a nice life," Woodard said. "But there is a limit to what America can do. That’s why we have an immigration policy."

But advocates such as Bazan-Manson say undocumented immigrants play a crucial role in the U.S. economy. They take jobs that Americans shun – and they pay taxes they’ll never see returned in the form of services, she said.

"Look at the contributions they make. The taxes they pay," she said. "Then take that all away and see where we are."

Staff writer Michael Wagner can be reached at [email protected] or (919) 828-7641.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066