U.S. Congress Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, and Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, both support securing the border between the United States and Mexico and both support using the National Guard and increased technology to do so.
Where the two candidates differ is in their recommendations of methods of enforcement. Taylor, in addition to stepping up border patrols, is looking to train local law officials to deal with immigrants already here illegally. He also supports the construction of more fencing along the border. Shuler primarily wants to increase border patrol agents and use high-tech security measures, potentially preventing illegal immigrants from ever crossing the line.
A recent study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan Insitute concluded that in 2004, slightly more than half of the state’s 600,913 Hispanics are foreign-born and either have become naturalized citizens, obtained a visa, or have migrated to North Carolina without legal authorization. Of the 196,449 Hispanics who immigrated to North Carolina between 1995 and 2004, approximately 76 percent were “unauthorized,” meaning that they did not have all their legal documents.
However, at the core of the debate is illegal immigration’s impact on agricultural and service markets and, in turn, the effect these workers and their families have on the social service system.
As those who rely on immigrant labor and those who push for immigration reform show, it’s not a debate that is easily resolved.
Field to table
William Shelton, a farmer in Jackson County’s Whittier community, regularly employs immigrant labor to work his strawberry, lettuce and tomato fields. The roster runs as low as eight and to as many as 50 laborers strong during peak season.
“Out of all the farmers I know, I don’t think there’s a single white what you would call field worker,” Shelton said.
Shelton does his best to make sure that his workers are in the U.S. legally.
“But that’s not always easy, because it’s a pretty easy thing to fake,” he said.
Regardless, Shelton keeps strict records and adheres to tax laws.
“It’s not like we’re out picking up day laborers and paying them cash,” he said. “For the most part, whether they’re legal or not, there’s still tax being withheld and taxes being paid on people who may never see those benefits.”
Granted, these field workers aren’t making a fortune, but how much Shelton can afford to pay is based on how much the market is willing to pay him for his goods.
“I feel like everybody is complicit in this thing,” he said. “When it comes to agriculture people demand cheap food, and the only way to get cheap food is to cut costs. It’s almost like produce markets are to some degree a race to the bottom. Farmers and buyers are participating in that race because that’s what the consumers demand.”
Critics of the practice of relying on cheap foreign labor say that those workers are driving down the price of labor across the board.
“You can’t have worker supply and demand set wages if we play with the number of workers there are,” said Ron Woodard, director of NC Listen, a non-profit group pushing for immigration reform.
NC Listen, based out of Cary, proposes fencing off the border, denying driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants nationwide, requiring employers to use a national records system to confirm workers’ status with spot checks and fines for those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants, using local law enforcement to initiate deportations if an illegal immigrant is discovered with probable cause such as a traffic stop, and allowing the American population to decide how many workers are needed to bolster the economy, a number which may fluctuate from year to year.
Woodard said that he’d been to Mexico and had seen the living conditions there, but that was not a matter of American concern.
“I know why people want to come here and get out of that, but that’s the Mexican government’s problem,” Woodard said.
Often proponents of immigration reform launch the argument that illegal immigrants are taking jobs that would have otherwise been an American’s. It’s a Catch-22 — many Americans are unwilling to take low paying agricultural work, the work doesn’t pay well because consumers demand low food prices, butwhile the work doesn’t pay well, it still pays a better wage than immigrant workers most likely would earn in their native countries.
“Immigrants are not taking American jobs,” said David Ortigoza, director of the Lake Junaluska Latino Center and a Brazilian immigrant. “They are not jobs that citizens want to have. If they get that kind of job, they don’t agree to get the low pay. If they get that job, they don’t stay for a long time, just until they can find another job.”
Industries such as construction have experienced an influx in immigrant labor. Hispanics filled one in three new jobs created in North Carolina between 1995 and 2005, with a significant concentration in construction, according to the Kenan Institute study. Construction jobs often pay better than agriculture, resulting in a labor shortage. Such was the case for one Hendersonville area farmer who had cucumbers rotting in the field because there was no one who would work for the wage he was able to pay.
“If you like fresh salad, you really don’t have a right to complain about migrant labor because if it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have that option,” Shelton said.
Is it an issue?
While the immigration debate is very real, exactly how much of an issue it will be for Western North Carolina voters remains to be seen. There won’t so much be a referendum on the issue with the congressional election since both Taylor and Shuler largely represent the same side of the coin.
Reportedly, immigration is the number one issue that voters contact Taylor’s office about. But Bob McCarson, editor and publisher of the Hendersonville-based Spanish language newspaper La Voz, says he sees more important issues facing the region, such as the loss of our manufacturing base and continued “brain drain” of young, smart locals who go out in search of professional jobs.
While La Voz does not have an editorial page nor any history of endorsing candidates — “I don’t get a sense that a majority of our readers are registered to vote,” McCarson said — McCarson himself leans Democratic.
“I was very surprised and pretty disheartened that Shuler basically has the same position as Taylor,” he said.
The candidates’ closely tied philosophies on immigration leave little choice in the matter. It’s a sentiment echoed by Macon County Republican Party Chairman Bob Lavery.
“I don’t see how you can make something out of nothing,” Lavery said. “They both agree, I don’t think you can make it an issue.”
Such is to be expected in a dead heat race — some recent polls have Shuler up by as many as 5 percentage points — between two conservative candidates.
“If it’s a tight race, you’re not going to have anyone calling for open borders,” said Woodard, of NC Listen.
However, Taylor questions Shuler’s sincerity in his written response to Shuler’s position.
“My opponent has tried to portray himself as strongly against illegal immigration. Yet, he has happily taken more than $125,000 in campaign contributions from the most liberal Members of Congress — every one of whom opposed the border security bill considered in December by the House,” Taylor wrote. “He has also taken more than $10,000 in contributions from the trial lawyers, who demand amnesty for illegal aliens already in the country. If my opponent truly believes stopping the flow of illegals is right, why doesn’t he return these contributions and tell his liberal extremist backers to stop their opposition to real reform?”
It’s a question Woodard also poses.
“What’s he going to do when Nancy Pelosi puts pressure on him to vote the party line?” Woodard asked of Shuler.
NC Listen doesn’t promote individual candidates, but it does reference voting records.
“Congressman Taylor, from our way of thinking of immigration reform, has about the best voting record of any member in Congress,” Woodard said.
Last week, on Sept. 14, Taylor co-sponsored H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The bill mandates enhanced border patrol operations, physical barriers, and state-of-the-art technology along the southwest border — including reinforced fencing to block illegal aliens and their vehicles. The bill passed the House by a vote of 283 to 138.
“My colleagues on the other side of the political aisle are on the wrong side of the American people, when it comes to securing our borders,” Taylor said in a press release following the vote. “They throw do-nothing bills onto the House floor in a desperate attempt at political cover — while they continue to oppose the most basic protection against illegal aliens: a border fence.”
The N.C. Democratic Party issued a release mirroring Taylor’s language.
“With the election just eight weeks away, the Do-Nothing Republican Congress has decided to try to appear to do something: Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives ‘voted for the second time in a year to erect a fence along a third of the U.S.-Mexican border, part of a Republican effort to keep illegal immigration an issue before voters’ (Associated Press, 9/15/2006).
Congressman Brad Miller, D-Raleigh, who supported the bill, summed it up best: ‘My first priority is giving law enforcement the resources and personnel they need to do their job. If Republicans in Congress were really interested in solving the immigration problem, not just having a campaign issue, they would have done this a long time ago,’” the release said.
Anne Powell, a Western Carolina University student and a Republican, changed her mind about immigration. While she once advocated a restricted border and deportation of illegals, she now views Hispanic immigrants as a vital part of our economy.
“Each year, it seems that the tax burdens grow worse, particularly those involving Medicaid and the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq. Since I can neither afford to buy private health insurance for my children nor qualify for government aid in this regard, the rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants burdening the Medicaid system was of particular interest to me,” Powell said. “I, like many Americans, was looking for a scapegoat. But the more research I did on the subject of Mexican immigration to the U.S., the more angry I became, both with the political rhetoric and with the schizophrenic shifts that have occurred in U.S. immigration policies since the early 20th century.”
Powell, a social science education major, with an emphasis in history, wrote “¡Bienvenidos! Welcome, Newest Tar Heels: Twentieth-Century Federal and State Policies as Causes in the Influx of Mexican Immigrants to North Carolina during the Period 1990-2006,” which she will present Wednesday, Sept. 20, as part of the Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations going on in the region.
“Suffice it to say that, over the decades, Hispanic immigrants have been blamed for everything from the Great Depression to the recession of the 1970s to the current domestic terrorist threat,” she said. “When it suits our commercial interests, we welcome them; when there is some problem that politicians don’t want to accept responsibility for, we speak of tightening the border.”
Is it practical?
Both Taylor and Shuler are in favor of cracking down on the border to prevent illegal immigration; however, their written responses to The Smoky Mountain News shed little light on what is to be done about illegal immigrants who are already here.
“Are we really going to deport the undocumented or Mexican population — all of it?” McCarson asked. “Does anybody seriously suggest that we’re going to take all these people and buss them back across the border?”
According to the Kenan Institute study, “North Carolina Hispanics had an estimated total after-tax income of $8.3 billion in 2004. With about 20 percent of that total sent home to Latin America, saved, or used for interest payments, the remaining spending had a total impact of $9.2 billion on the state — much of which is concentrated in the major metropolitan areas along the Interstate 40/Interstate 85 corridor, but which also supports businesses in every part of the state.”
As a result, McCarson has dire predictions for an immigrant-free future.
“I think the consequences for the economy in North Carolina would be devastating, absolutely devastating,” he said.
Ortigoza, who is sponsoring a forum titled “Latinos and Politics in Haywood County” in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month on Sunday, Sept. 24, said that more needs to be done for the Latino and American communities to work together.
“I agree that the country needs to provide more security on the border, I understand that,” he said. “My concern is how we can lead better with people who are in the country and who are helping us to have more income for the country.”