Local News

Questions Arise About Arresting Illegal Immigrants In N.C.

Posted July 8, 2005

— The federal government is moving quickly to deport a small group of illegal immigrants who were arrested Wednesday at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, where the men did contract work.

There is a lot of energy behind this particular case -- a stark contrast to the estimated 300,000 other illegal immigrants in North Carolina. But why?

Overall, WRAL found a complicated system of mixed messages.

Some employers quietly welcome undocumented workers to North Carolina, where state and local governments provide services. The federal government considers them illegal, but few are prosecuted.

When it comes to arresting illegal immigrants in North Carolina, it boils down to priorities.

"The answer to why we don't round up 300,000 is because the cost to taxpayers would be so extraordinary that Congress hasn't provided that level of funds," said U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney.

Right now, military installations, airports and nuclear plants are considered homeland security priorities, as well as illegal immigrants with guns, or those charged with violent crimes.

Otherwise, had the workers, arrested Wednesday, reported to a job site 100 yards from Seymour Johnson, they probably would still be free.

"We could, and may, prosecute," Whitney said. "But it is not a priority because it doesn't affect our national security."

That reality frustrates critics. They believe illegal immigrants take away jobs and strain public services like schools and hospitals.

Despite tighter identification restrictions, the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles cares less about tracking legal status than it does making sure drivers understand the laws of the road.

Contrary to popular belief, the North Carolina Department of Labor's role is to make sure employees have safe working conditions. State labor inspectors do not enforce immigration laws.

"We just don't make any demarcation between a person's status," said Allen McNeely, a spokesman for the Department of Labor. "I think what we do is go in and look at what job they're doing."

On the other hand, illegal immigrants are subject to exploitation. Some employers seek them out and may pay a lesser wage. Because they are undocumented, workers are reluctant to protest. Plus, employers seldom get in trouble for hiring illegal immigrants.

"It's very rare because the burden of proof is so high," Whitney said.

What is the answer? Offer amnesty? Pour more resources into enforcement? Close the border? Those are testy policy debates that are a long way from being resolved.

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