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The illness: Holes in the Latino safety net

The cure: Not letting them get any bigger

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See also: The progressive prescription | Expensive insurance for serious health problems | Big-money campaign contributions | Oil addiction | Holes in the Latino safety net | 10 more to watch | No ordinary day for 'HK on J'

The 30 people who attended a Latino Legislative Assembly last month at El Centro Hispano in Durham asked not for special treatment, but for basic needs: driver's licenses so they can legally travel to work, labor laws to protect them on the job, and access to education that will lift them from the economic rungs of low-paid farmworkers or hotel maids.

The gathering was one of several statewide stops on a listening tour sponsored by El Pueblo, a Latino advocacy group based in Raleigh. With input from these meetings, El Pueblo frames the Latino legislative agenda. Yet, after a bruising 2006 session in which lawmakers tightened driver's license requirements and prevented undocumented immigrants from paying in-state college tuition, chances are slim that many pro-Latino bills will be introduced, much less passed.

With the exception of state Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham, most Democrats—facing an election—caved on immigration issues last session. Luebke says he's met many immigrant families, and "I looked at the bills from the perspective of those people."

Even with more progressives in the legislature this year, Latino advocates will find few publicly supportive allies.

"It is not a fertile landscape for pro-immigration legislation," says Dani Martinez-Moore, coordinator of the N.C. Justice Center's network of immigrant advocates.

However, Luebke says there could be legislation that would provide additional funding for ESL teachers and interpreters at public agencies. Another bill could be introduced to further protect the health of migrant farmworkers, and institute tougher penalties for companies that violate health and safety standards.

There are rumblings that a bill could be in the works allowing the state to revoke driver's licenses obtained using a tax identification number. The 2006 law requires people to have a valid Social Security number to get a license, which affects first-time applicants or those renewing their license. This bill would affect current license holders.

"We'll be defensive on many fronts," said Marisol McGee-Jimenez, lobbyist for El Pueblo. "We're fully expecting bills to be introduced that would try to make it more difficult for people to live here."

While public perception is that all Latinos are in North Carolina illegally, it is estimated that more than half of the state's 500,000 Latinos are legal residents or U.S. citizens. It is also untrue that undocumented immigrants receive a broad range of publicly funded benefits. They are eligible for emergency medical care under Medicaid and free public education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Legal residents who aren't U.S. citizens have to wait five years to apply for food stamps, Medicaid or other state- or federally funded programs.

"The overall majority of Latinos are paying taxes," says Luebke, a 16-year veteran of the legislature. "They are contributing to the economy by retail purchases and working hard at one or two jobs. There is an unfortunate tendency to believe these folks aren't paying their way; it's not true. There needs to be education of non-Latinos about these issues so that gulf can be bridged."

The few safety nets available to undocumented immigrants could be cut not only on the state or federal level, but also by local governments. Several U.S. cities have passed housing laws requiring landlords to verify the immigration status of potential tenants or enacted English-only ordinances. Sheriff's departments in three North Carolina counties—Mecklenberg, Gaston and Alamance—have signed agreements with the Justice Department authorizing officers to enforce immigration laws. Some law enforcement agencies without those agreements, McGee-Jimenez says, are scrutinizing the immigration status of someone who is merely charged, but not convicted, of even minor crimes.

"There is a fear of separation of families because of deportation," she says.

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration and a former independent consultant to Senate Democrats, aggressively lobbies for laws to force undocumented immigrants to leave the United States, although most, driven from their own countries by poverty, return to America. "We want to send a clear message: Illegals go home," says Gheen, who helped defeat the in-state tuition bill last session and opposes federal guest worker and amnesty programs.

Gheen says he plans to promote Georgia's Immigration and Security Act, considered to be the most restrictive and encompassing state immigration law in the nation, as a model for North Carolina legislation.

A dominant voice in the anti-immigration movement, Gheen denies being a racist. "There are some whose concerns are racist, but those are the minority." However, Gheen uses fear as his rallying tool against undocumented immigrants.

"Last year, [Latino advocates] brought a bunch of people into the legislature who looked like illegal aliens," he said of the March 2006 Latino Legislative Day. "They looked criminal.... They wore red shirts like it was a communist meeting." (Red is a color often identified with communism, he stated, although, asked if that applied to Republican-dominated "red states," he said no.)

McGee-Jimenez says groups such as El Pueblo are avidly organizing Latino and immigrant communities. "We have growing alliances with the African-American community and other immigrant groups. We're really excited about the energy that continues to build."

Despite that groundswell, Gheen and his supporters still have more political traction than Latino advocates. A Research 2000 poll conducted for The News & Observer suggested that three-quarters of North Carolinians surveyed said there are too many legal immigrants in the state. The same amount said they wanted "illegal immigrants" to leave.

"They [anti-immigrant groups] can advance their agenda right now," McGee-Jimenez says. "The competition over resources is fertile ground for the agenda they push. But ultimately, they're not offering realistic solutions."

Jan. 29, 2007: Correction to William Gheen identifier.

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