October 6, 2010
Written by Mark Pellin
Bill James is his own worst enemy.
The Republican county commissioner from suburban south Mecklenburg has a history of raising valid questions and concerns about serious policy matters, sometimes even proposing legitimate solutions, but doing so using such inflammatory language and over-the-top rhetoric that it obscures the issue at hand.
James was at it again during Tuesday night’s county board meeting, pitching a controversial proposal for commissioners to seek guidance from the Department of Homeland Security on how the county could report illegal aliens who receive welfare benefits on behalf of U.S.-born children in their families.
The proposal failed by a 5-3 vote along party lines, with Democrats Harold Cogdell, George Dunlap, Dumont Clarke, Vilma Leake and Dan Murrey voting in dissent. James and Republican commissioners Karen Bentley and Neil Cooksey voted in support of seeking solutions that would allow county officials to legally report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.
James raised the issue after the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services had reported earlier this year that 5,635 families receiving food stamps in the county include at least one undocumented immigrant. About $2.7 million was paid out in public benefits in July to children of suspected illegal aliens, according to the DSS. For a 12-month schedule, that could total more than $32 million a year.
The DSS uses a verification system to check eligibility for welfare benefits, which can identify an applicant’s immigration status. But the agency is prohibited by federal policy from reporting known illegals to immigration authorities, unless there is a pending formal order of deportation.
James was concerned not only about the expense of paying welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants who had applied on behalf of U.S.-born children, but also the potential security risks of not reporting the applicants’ illegal status.
“That’s what this whole thing is all about,” James said Tuesday night. “We have all these illegals in our system and we don’t know if they’re Osama-wannabes or what the heck they are.”
That drew not only loud jeers from a largely Hispanic crowd that showed up to protest James’ proposal, but also a rebuke from Cogdell, who in his capacity as commissioners vice chair was presiding over the meeting. Commissioners Chairman Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, had left earlier in the evening to take care of a sick child on the homefront.
“You have every bit of First Amendment right to bring forth your perspective and share your opinion with this body, this board, and this community,” Cogdell told James. “But frankly, you have a history of throwing bombs, offending people, saying things that are unnecessary to productive dialogue.”
That set the tone for what would devolve into a lengthy session of James-bashing and political posturing, instead of substantive debate over an important policy matter.
As usual, James had himself to blame. The proposal he ultimately made Tuesday night was a scaled-down version of his original agenda item, which called for the board of commissioners to “instruct the Department of Social Services to ignore state and federal regulations and disclose to the Sheriff/ICE/Homeland Security the details of any individuals within their files who have been determined to be illegal … and to determine whether or not they are a threat to national security, have a criminal background, or associated with those that may be a security threat. This is to be required even if this results in litigation with either the State of North Carolina or the Federal Department of Agriculture.”
Even though that proposal was longer on the table for consideration, it remained the focus of debate.
“We cannot allow one man’s political grandstanding to do great harm to our community,” said Stacey Bonilla, who identified herself as a Charlotte native, the wife of an immigrant, and the chapter president of American Families United.
“We refuse to let our county government break the law in the name of hate,” Bonilla said, arguing that James’ original proposal, which was no longer up for consideration, was encouraging the county to engage in actions that violated federal law.
“Commissioner James,” she said, “what part of illegal don’t you understand?”
While conceding that James’ proposal was awkwardly phrased and poorly presented, Cooksey said its intent was valid.
“My understanding of the request is we’re trying to find a way to provide the information that we get through our application process to the Department of Homeland Security,” Cooksey said, “so we can ferret out people who provide a security risk or risk of violent crime in our community.”
The country’s immigration problem was “completely out of control,” he said, with a flood of undocumented workers hurting “people that are in the lowest end of our economic scale by driving down wages and taking away jobs that Americans would otherwise do.”
At the same time, Cooksey said, illegal immigration “dramatically adds costs to our social service systems and our education systems.”
“No other country in the world is as liberal in its immigration policy as the United States,” he said. “No other country in the world lets millions of undocumented people come into their country and then provides social services for those people. It is something that we need to get under control as a society.”
Bentley echoed that sentiment. Much of the frustration and concern embroiling the immigration issue, she said, can be attributed to the financial stress it is putting on county and state governments, which are supporting people who are in this country illegally and who are taking advantage of the schools and welfare systems.
By way of local example, Bentley said that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spends about $90 million educating illegal immigrants.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” she said. “That’s why the tension is so high. It is not because we don’t respect or love each other in this community. But we have taxpayers who are at the end of their ropes, financially, and our state and county governments are at a point where we have to start deciding how are we going to manage through this time.”
Murrey agreed with the need for immigration reform, but said James’ proposal was the wrong way to achieve it.
“I think we have a real problem, but this motion suggests that we should do something that is illegal or against the statutes,” Murrey said. “It suggests that ultimately we could end up taking food from the mouths of American children or that we could break up families by separating parents from their children. I don’t think that’s the way to go about getting a message back to Washington.”
James said his proposal was more focused on giving county officials the ability to report illegal immigrants for safety reasons, than on tackling the complex issue of comprehensive immigration reform.
“I want to have some degree of comfort that the people at Homeland Security have received it (information about illegals) and evaluated it, so that they know who is here,” James said. “And since they didn’t arrive in the country legally, it’s very possible they don’t know.”
Dunlap wasn’t buying it.
“What we’re talking about is American citizens; we’re not talking about illegals or some foreign group of people,” Dunlap said, even though the board was discussing how the county could report illegal aliens. “We’re talking about people who are just as much American citizens as you are, Mr. James. They might look different than you, some of them may speak differently than you, but they have the same rights as a U.S. citizen as you have.”
On that note, Dunlap accused James of playing politics with the issue of immigration.
“We need to put the rat on the table,” Dunlap said. “This is really about politics. Notice the timing of this issue, right before the election, when you have your colleagues talking about immigration issues. And we know that your job is to put the Democrats in an awkward position, at least that’s what you think, so the public will view this as Democrats being soft on immigration issues. I pray that what you’re attempting to do backfires.”
If prayers weren’t enough, Dunlap threw in some wholly speculative and ominous warnings for good measure.
“I would say to this community and remind you that if Mr. James’ colleagues take over this commission, you’ll have a whole lot more who think like he does,” said the commissioner who had accused his colleague of playing politics with the issue of immigration.
Countered Bentley: “For Commissioner Dunlap to assume that if a Republican majority is elected that it is the end of the world for the immigrant community is shameful.”