NC House Immigration Panel Hears From Employers

Lawmakers considering what North Carolina can do to clamp down on illegal immigration heard Wednesday from businesses that seek out cheap labor, and also got an earful from protesters who said they're in the country illegally.

Three of the demonstrators were arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct, General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver said.

The state House committee's meeting was disrupted near its end by a handful of young Hispanics who wearing T-shirts saying "Undocumented and Unafraid." They shouted their opposition after Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, decried illegal immigrants as the source of drug and gun crime.

Three were arrested for and were to be charged with disorderly conduct, General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver said.

Viridiana Martinez, 25, of Raleigh said she's lived illegally in North Carolina since her parents brought her to the state at age 7. She noted that the 12-member House Select Committee on the State's Role in Immigration Policy is stocked with some of the chamber's most ardent backers of state action to crack down on illegal immigrants. "That says to me that these folks are out to come after us. They're going to do whatever it takes to make the situation as terrible as possible right here in our home to make us leave" said Martinez, a freelance interpreter. "We're not going to remain quiet about it."

Charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct were Uriel Alberto, 24, of Winston-Salem; Estephania Mijangos-Lopez, 20, of Sanford; and Cynthia Martinez, 21, of Broadway, Weaver said.

They were booked at the Wake County Jail, which has officers authorized to check immigration status and turn over non-U.S. citizens to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A jail spokesman did not return a call seeking comment on whether the three would be turned over to ICE for possible deportation.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates North Carolina ranks ninth in population among the states with what it calls 325,000 unauthorized immigrants, defined as foreign-born citizens of other countries who aren't legal immigrants.

The committee also heard from representatives of the home building, construction and farming industries. North Carolina Home Builders Association lobbyist Lisa Martin said her group supported Congress, not states, addressing immigration. While government should back training and retraining programs for the construction trades, "the homebuilding industry needs a strong and ready workforce," she said.

The testimony signaled the balancing act facing lawmakers who aim to discourage illegal immigrants.

Farmers in Georgia and Alabama have reported labor shortages because migrant workers quite showing up for field work since tough immigration enforcement provisions were adopted in those states last year. Some farmers said ahead of this year's growing season that they might reduce the number of acres they plant, shift to less labor-intensive crops, or accept higher labor prices.

Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, asked why even with the unemployment rate high he sees so many Hispanic faces on construction sites. "You would think that with all the high unemployment there's a large pool of people the contractors could draw from. I'm wondering what is it that makes Hispanic workers drawn to this trade?" asked Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell. "That seems to be a constant. It hasn't changed even though there are more unemployed white people out there."

Martin said she didn't know, but added that her Italian ancestors were stone masons before they immigrated to the U.S. a century ago, so more recent immigrants might also come with skills used in construction.

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