Immigration reform is one of the most contested issues facing the nation these days; the topic made national headlines recently when President Obama spoke out about reform for the first time in his administration (on July 1), and when the fed sued Arizona for the state's SB1070 policy, giving local police immigration enforcement powers. Locally, the 287(g) program, which allows officers to check a person's immigration status even if he or she has been stopped for a minor violation, hasn't done much to improve the relationship between police and the area's immigrant population. Then there's the case of former Charlotte Mecklenburg Police officer Marcus Jackson, who allegedly targeted Hispanic women for sexual abuse while he was on duty; his alleged crimes fostered even more distrust against law enforcement in the Latino community. For a snapshot of immigration issues in the city and state, Creative Loafing reached out to both ends of the spectrum -- speaking to Latin American Coalition Executive Director Jess George and the president of N.C.-based Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, William Gheen.
Creative Loafing: When talking about immigration reform, why is the conversation so focused on Latinos and not other groups?
Jess George: I think that the discussion on illegal immigration is focused around Latinos for probably good reasons and not so good reasons. No. 1, especially in our region, the vast majority -- well over 80 percent -- of immigrants, documented or undocumented, are Latin Americans. When we're talking about immigrants, those are the newcomers to our city. They are the largest population of immigrants and it's also going to be the largest population of undocumented immigrants.
William Gheen: Because there are so many illegal Latinos and the majority of Latinos in North Carolina are now here illegally. It's not racially motivated -- it's statutorily motivated.
Is 287(g) working to remove dangerous criminals who are here illegally or leading to racial profiling?
George: I think that 287(g) makes the average law enforcement official's job harder. The intention of 287(g) is to remove criminals from our community. However, I think the problem is we draw these erroneous connections. Whether a person is here with or without documentation has nothing to do with whether that person is a criminal. It has to do with whether or not they are in status. The problem with 287(g) is -- it has a number of issues with it -- there are a lot of public violations of trust, perception and reality. We can look at the [former CMPD officer] Marcus Jackson case. We have other very visible deportation cases within the immigrant community. Right or wrong, if you know that your brother has been deported because the police arrested him for a broken taillight or drunk driving -- which is wrong and has no place in our community -- the perception in the immigrant community is that you don't speak to the police. There is a perception that the police is a source of insecurity and not security within the immigrant community.
Gheen: It's a big bunch of racism, because most police officers are racist. They just want to get people out of the country because they are brown.
How do you rate the state's role in dealing with immigration issues?
George: I think that North Carolina, like all states, is put in a really unfair position. We have a broken immigration system at the national level and the frustrations that we see at the state level and the city level are very real and very important. If our national representatives don't have the courage and the focus to make the changes necessary to make sure we have a comprehensive immigration bill -- one that has all the elements that would fix the broken system -- then naturally, people on the local level are going to feel as if they need to do something about it. Of course, the only thing that states can do is enforcement, and unfortunately, that's ineffective and doesn't reflect the needs of the community, our social needs, our economic needs. They end up being like the Arizona law, unconstitutional, which is the claim of the federal government. I feel so much compassion for these local legislators who are put in the position where they feel like "Wow, undocumented immigration has created some real challenges in our community and we're struggling with how to best deal with it." They end up going to this really extreme point where they're doing immigration enforcement, which is the federal government's job.
Gheen: Oh, I think they're doing real great. Especially with all the license that they gave illegal aliens. The fact [is] that Democrats block any attempt to mistreat illegal aliens -- because we all know that people who want illegal aliens dealt with just don't like brown people. So, the Democrats in North Carolina have done a really great job of stopping any discussion of immigration-related bills.
So, you're being sarcastic?
Gheen: Every single question that you've asked me is designed to inflict blame by asking questions that are not really questions -- they are statements posed as questions. I'm not afraid of what you're doing. What you're doing has become so common across the country and so many people see through it and people are sick of it and they just don't care anymore. The unfortunate thing is that real racism is going to come along from time to time and people are going to miss it and not care about it because of what you're doing. For five years now, I've had to deal with a lot of people, particularly in the print media, that want to cast the specter of racism on the entire immigration debate. I'm immune to it. I don't care what you print, what you say about me. You have no power over me.