The optics and symbolic power of North Carolina’s immigration debate
by Jordan Green
It was the second to the last day of the legislative session, and Rep. George Cleveland, a conservative Republican lawmaker from Jacksonville, was eager to get a final vote on a bill restricting IDs carried by undocumented immigrants and banning so-called “sanctuary cities.”
Titled the Protect North Carolina Workers Act, HB 318 also tightened up the state’s E-verify program and cut off food stamps to able-bodied adults without children. Some of the chamber’s more mainstream Republicans, including Speaker Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam and Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury, made it clear they would only support the bill if it carved out a key exception for law enforcement.
The provision related to ID cards seemed squarely focused on making life more difficult for undocumented people who live in North Carolina. The measure prohibited the courts, law enforcement officers and government officials the use of the matricula consular and other documents issued by foreign consulates and embassies. Going even further, the proposed law took aim at ID cards issued by “any person, organization, county, city, or other local authority.” The language seemed tailor-made for the ID program launched in 2012 by the Greensboro nonprofit FaithAction International House.
As the House prepared for its final vote on HB 318 on Sept. 28, local police officials from Greensboro and Burlington joined clergy for a press conference in front of FaithAction International House in Greensboro to express support for the community program under threat of elimination by the proposed law.
“Over the last several years we’ve been working hard to build relationships with that community, and we feel like the FaithAction ID has helped,” Burlington police Capt. Jeff Wood said at the press conference. “If they limit the kind of IDs we can accept, we’re going to have a whole lot more people arrested and thrown in jail tying up our law enforcement resources.”
Since 2006 — when the General Assembly changed the law to prevent people without legal status from obtaining driver’s licenses — carrying some type of ID recognized by local authorities has become a crucial factor for undocumented people seeking to keep their families together and survive day to day.
“If you interact with the authorities and you end up in jail, there is a risk you end up in deportation, just because you were stopped because your license plate is expired,” said Hernando Ramirez-Santos, the executive editor at Qué Pasa newspaper, who has closely followed the progress of HB 318. “It’s happened with the majority of undocumented people. They have to drive with an expired license plate and expired registration.”
By the time the bill came up for a final vote in the House on the evening of Sept. 29, the sponsors had already reached an agreement with the NC Association of Police Chiefs and the NC Sheriffs’ Association to carve out an exemption so that law enforcement officers could continue to accept the FaithAction IDs. The fix would be handled as an amendment to a separate “technical corrections” bill — a mechanism used sometimes by members of both parties to tweak legislation when the close of the session leaves little time to send bills back to the other chamber for concurrence. The amendment wasn’t even out of drafting when Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Jacksonville, asked his colleagues to give final approval to the legislation.
Stam and Warren made it clear they were only voting for the original bill because they had been assured that the concerns of the police chiefs and sheriffs would be addressed.
One Democratic lawmaker asked Cleveland to explain the objective of the original bill.
“The objective of this bill is to address the illegalities of that we have floating around our state in relationship to illegal aliens,” Cleveland said coolly, “and also to address the identification cards that are being produced to give these people of semblance of propriety, a semblance of belonging here.”
Ramirez-Santos was taken aback by Cleveland’s transparency.
“They want them to feel unwelcome, like they can’t be integrated in the community,” Ramirez-Santos reflected. “They were telling the undocumented to get out of this state. I was amazed when he said that.”
In alarmist language reminiscent of Trump’s appeals to xenophobia and nativism, Cleveland charged on the House floor that undocumented immigrants in North Carolina jails have “committed murder, they’ve committed rape, they’ve committed child abuse, and they’re here because we allow it.”
He argued that taxpayers are footing the bill for services that undocumented immigrants use.
“You can be as kind and considerate as you want,” Cleveland admonished his fellow lawmakers, “but eventually they’ll overrun you and you won’t have the life that you have now. We don’t need the mentality from the other parts of the world in our state, at least in our state, so they will not assimilate.”
Several Democratic lawmakers raised objections.
Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro told her colleagues that the FaithAction ID program was a model for other cities around the country.
Rep. Ed Hanes of Winston-Salem quoted from Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, while Rep. Graig Meyer of Hillsborough recited the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte said he was disturbed by the rhetoric from the House floor.
“I heard about the rampant criminal element,” Moore said. “I won’t call them illegal because this is a nation of immigrants. All of us here in this chamber are descendants of immigrants, whether we came here by Ellis Island or we were forced into ships to come over here, whether we were forced immigrants or we were volunteer immigrants, all of us were immigrants, so let’s just take this out of the equation now.
“You’re not talking about an android, representatives,” Moore continued. “You’re talking about human beings, people who for whatever reason, whether it’s for opportunity, whether it’s to flee religious or political persecution, have come to this country, the country who is the example shining on the hill, as we say.”
Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Greensboro, detected a note of hypocrisy in his Democratic colleagues’ desire to de-link local law enforcement from federal immigration control.
“When we discussed the bill on the magistrate opt-out and now we see this clerk in Kentucky and the controversy up there, I have heard those of your persuasion just so angered that public officials will not follow the law,” Blust said. “And I’m just wondering why does that bother you for some laws that won’t be enforced by public officials, but other public officials that don’t enforce other laws are given a pass?”
Meyer responded: “Because, Rep. Blust, some of us believe in being consistent, and in being welcoming and loving towards those who have been hurt and oppressed.”
Blust alluded to the effective function of the bill — framing a national issue that Republican candidates expect to play well with their base electorate in 2016 — in remarks just before the bill received final approval on a strict party-line vote of 70 to 43.
“Hopefully, we’re seeing in the presidential race, this is becoming an issue,” he said.
But Blust’s Republican colleague, Rep. Harry Warren, spelled out the actual implications of the legislation.
“The net effect of this bill, in my opinion, will force folks who are here illegally — it will force them to seek out and purchase counterfeit documents,” said Warren, who unsuccessfully filed legislation earlier in the year to create a restricted, one-year driving permit for undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check. “I think we’ll see an increase in that. I think we’ll probably see a corresponding increase in identity theft.”
Ramirez-Santos predicted a similar outcome in a recent interview.
“If the government agencies cannot accept [the IDs], it’s a great obstacle,” he said. “If you rent a place, you need to pay the water. How are you going to do it? They’ve been living in that situation for many years, but it’s getting harder. They will have to use another person to open a water account or turn on the electricity.”
Speaking on the House floor, Warren went on to list several other concerns.
“Without having some form of established and verified identification, this makes it harder not only for law enforcement if you don’t have it,” he said, “it also makes it difficult for the [Department of Public Instruction] and those in the educational field, those in the medical field because by federal mandate we’re required to provide education, immunization and emergency medical care for folks who are here illegally. It’s absolutely critical we have some form of ID and because this bill denying a matricula consular card or a municipal ID — which I fully support doing away with them — but to do away with them without having some form of ID is not going to drive people who are here illegally out of the state; it’s going to exacerbate the problem.”
Warren went on to say he was supporting the bill only because of the technical amendment.
Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican and former police chief in High Point, urged his colleagues to adopt the amendment.
Far from a limited tweak, the amendment wrought a substantial change, stating that documents “created by any person, organization, county, city, or other local authority… may be used by a law enforcement officer to assist in determining the identity or residency of a person when they are the only documents providing an indication of identity or residency available to the law enforcement officer at the time.”
In other words, police could continue to accept the FaithAction IDs as a last resort — which has always been their essential function anyway.