Lawmakers weigh immigration changes

Posted December 7, 2011 8:23 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2011 8:25 p.m. EST

It was a packed house for the first meeting of the House Select Committee on States’ Role in Immigration Policy.

The study committee, chaired by Reps. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick) and Harry Warren (R-Rowan), has been asked to submit a report on the issue of illegal immigration in North Carolina, and recommend any legislation the panel thinks appropriate. The bills would be eligible for consideration in the short session next May.

Despite the turnout – some advocating for stricter immigration laws, some there on behalf of illegal immigrants – the panel didn’t take public comment today. Instead, lawmakers heard presentations from two sheriffs on their partnerships with federal immigration officials.

Alamance Sheriff Terry Johnson says his county’s participation in the federal 287(g) program has helped his deputies arrest and arrange for the deportation of nearly 1,800 illegal immigrants over the past five years. All had been charged with a criminal offense, brought to the detention center, and put into a federal fingerprint database to verify their actual identities.

“We deal with criminals who happen to be illegal aliens,” Johnson said, adding that North Carolina generally and Alamance County in particular are considered hubs for drug trafficking operations from Mexico and Central America. “If you don’t want to be processed” through the 287(g) program, he said, “don’t break the laws of our state or our country.”

Johnson says 287(g) has helped track people who have outstanding warrants in other jurisdictions, prior arrests, or even prior deportations. He estimated that 80 percent of those arrested gave false names to the police. “We need to know who is in our jails,” he told lawmakers.

Rockingham Sheriff Sam Page agreed that the federal partnership is working well. But overall, he says nothing will change until federal officials tighten border security, especially in the southwest.

“You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than being deported, being an illegal immigrant in this state and this country,” Page told lawmakers. “There’s not the resources, I don’t think. There’s not a commitment to follow through. And we’re sending a lot of mixed messages.”

Page and Johnson told lawmakers that loopholes in the federal partnership are letting some alleged criminals escape unprocessed. Their fingerprints aren’t run until they’re processed at the detention center – and if that person makes bail, he or she never even enters the facility.

“I wish there was a law that was passed that everyone arrested, other than speeding, for driving without a license on up would be brought to the detention center for processing,” Johnson told the panel.

That’s one change lawmakers could consider. They could also consider tightening laws regarding reporting of citizenship status for schoolchildren. But committee members expressed concern about trying to make far-reaching changes that could trigger legal action.

Federal immigration laws trump state laws, committee staff told the panel. And parts of broad new immigration reform laws in Alabama and Arizona have already been put on hold by courts.

“The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on most of these issues,” legislative staffer Drupti Chauhan cautioned the committee.

The panel's next meeting is scheduled for January 25, 2012.