Local News

Public Feedback About Immigrant Tuition Bill Turns Negative

Posted April 22, 2005 8:02 a.m. EDT

— The debate over a bill before the N.C. General Assembly that would give children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition has soared to a new level. That legislation has upset some people, and public feedback now includes hate mail.

Soon after former Gov. Jim Hunt stood with lawmakers to support the legislation, the raw emotion poured out.

When the pressure came for state legislators to withdraw their support from the proposed bill, Rep. Jeff Barnhart, R-Cabarrus County, watched nine of his colleagues take their names off the controversial legislation.

"I've gotten some very ugly language, some racial slurs, bigoted e-mail -- which are very disappointing," Barnhart said. "I can honestly understand the frustration. All we're saying is that we need to look at the problem. We need constructive dialogue."

On its Web site, a Latino advocacy group also calls for tolerant dialogue. El Pueblo posted attacks from some of its extreme opposition -- some comments so aggressive that Raleigh police were called in to check on El Pueblo security.

Now, there's a flurry of bills that seek to take away more rights for illegal immigrants and tighten enforcement in North Carolina.

One would give local law enforcement more power to enforce immigration laws. Another urges the U.S. Congress to formally declare English the nation's official language.

The backers clearly oppose tuition breaks for undocumented families.

"This bill may not be the answer, but it's time we start thinking about answers because we've got problems we've got to deal with," said Barnhart.

Despite the backlash, Hunt said Thursday that he is still 100 percent behind the bill.

"Some of the people have been pretty ugly, but other people have continuing concerns about that," Hunt said. "We need to keep our eye on the ball -- what's the right thing to do and what's the smart thing to do economically -- so we can build the economy of North Carolina."

Hunt calls it the fair thing to do for children.

According to the most recent statistics from El Pueblo, Latinos account for more than 95 percent of migrant farm workers in North Carolina. They are also more than half of the workers at meat processing plants. Duplin County is the most heavily populated county of immigrants. Nearly 17.5 percent of the population is Hispanic.