N.C.’s discomfort with immigration revamp might block it in Congress

02/10/2014 5:00 AM

02/07/2014 3:06 PM

Congressman Richard Hudson opposes the plan. Rep. Robert Pittenger says border security must come first. But Rep. Renee Ellmers calls it a good first step.

Republicans in the North Carolina congressional delegation are divided over their leaders’ calls to pass legislation that would give millions of undocumented immigrants legal status.

Their mixed response is illustrative of the steep uphill climb Congress and the White House face trying to pass a major immigration overhaul this year. Without support from some conservatives in the south, a new approach to the nation’s immigration law is likely dead.

Two weeks ago, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, unveiled his legislative template for an overhaul that would also strengthen border security and revamp the guest worker program.

But it has not gone over favorably in North Carolina.

“There is no rush to do a big awful bill,” Hudson said. “We did that with Obamacare. We did that with stimulus. Congress likes doing that way. But it’s not the best way.”

North Carolina’s newest House members have become some of its most influential voices and helped set a new direction for conservative leadership.

Hudson of Concord, along with another freshman N.C. Rep. Mark Meadows of Jackson County, helped lead conservative Republicans into battle over President Barack Obama’s health care law that resulted in a government shutdown.

Ellmers of Dunn has been described as the spokesman for the so-called Tea Party class of 2010. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh sits on the prominent House Judiciary committee that is leading immigration efforts.

Their growing prominence in the party and the push by industry for change has on made North Carolina a bellwether state on whether immigration can be passed this year.

Local group like the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and national leaders like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg have targeted the North Carolina members in hopes they can help convince leadership to bring a vote to the floor.

“We’ve had members of Congress on farms here, at tailgate talks on this issue,” said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “The information is out there. I think our members of Congress know where we are. They’ve got to really step up now.”

It’s a message they will press in the coming weeks. Local farmers will fly into Washington this week to meet with their elected representatives. On Feb. 19, they’re holding a round table with Ellmers in the Triangle area. Additional February events have been scheduled in Hickory, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Durham.

Business feels they have developed an ally in Ellmers. She says she opposes “pathway to citizenship” or “amnesty” like other Republicans of the delegation. But she is the only one to join House leaders and publically call for legal status for some of the 11 million.

It’s a position that has brought her praise from the business community and advocacy groups, but also a heavy dose of criticism from challengers on the right seeking to unseat her.

But if an overhaul is going to be passed, or even brought to the floor, it’s likely more N.C. members will have to wade into such politically dangerous waters.

The White House threw its support behind the Senate when it passed legislation last year that would grant those here illegally a path to citizenship. It’s unlikely Democrats will negotiate with House members on any immigration bill that doesn’t at least offer some form of legal status.

Hudson, Pittenger and Holding say they understand the business needs and are in favor of updating the visa system so they can get the immigrant labor they need. But, like most of N.C. Republicans, they say they can’t support anything close to amnesty.

“I recognize that there are 11 million people here,” Pittenger said. “They have to be accounted for. And there is economic value. But I think there ought to be a way to bring these people out to recognize they are here and give them a basis to come out, but it has to be a thoughtful approach.”

Holding’s position may be closest to Ellmers. He says border security must be first and citizenship is out. But he would also “consider proposals that allow for some of those here, without status, to remain and work under limited conditions.”

Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville opposes any legal status. He said that would still be rewarding those individuals for breaking our laws and entering the country illegally.

Other North Carolina members spoke more carefully about immigration.

Rep. Patrick McHenry of Cherryville said he opposes any special status for law breakers that puts them ahead of those trying to enter the country legally. Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk said they’re against a path to citizenship. They didn’t clarify whether they would be open to some kind of legal status for the undocumented.

While there is no question the immigration system must be fixed, Rep. Howard Coble of Greensboro said “it is unlikely the newly- issued Republican principles will bridge the political gap among the House, Senate and President Obama.”

For that reason, many Republicans don’t want to debate immigration this year. They worry a drawn out battle over immigration would only divide the party and hurt their chances of retaking the Senate in 2014 midterm elections.

Meadows said one concern is any deal struck by the House will later be combined with the Senate version that includes citizenship.

On Thursday, Boehner shared some of that doubt that a bill could be moved this year. He blamed it on Obama and said Republicans don’t trust the White House will enforce laws on the books.

Even if Republicans felt better about their leadership’s principles, Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina doesn’t think legislation could be passed because of the ideological differences with the Senate.

But he disagrees with those who don’t want to even debate the issue. He said it’s good that Republicans are talking more specifically about what issues are important to them.

“If we don’t tell people what we believe, someone else will tell them what we believe,” he said. “And we won’t like what that looks like.”

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