Politics
North Carolina Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers speaks during a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Oct. 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) North Carolina Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers speaks during a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Oct. 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)  

Rep. Ellmers backs conditional amnesty, fuels primary challenge

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

North Carolina Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers says the federal government should allow illegal immigrants to stay in the United States, and should welcome a new inflow of foreign guest workers.

Her support for foreign workers is fueling a primary bid by Frank Roche, an economics lecturer at nearby Elon University.

At campaign events, any mention of Ellmers’ support for amnesty, Roche told The Daily Caller, ”always gets the crowd roiled up — they do not want it.”

“I’m advocating for a low level of immigration [and] no amnesty,” he said, adding that a good reform should minimize the impact on employers.

“We have significant portions of our economy that are dependent on immigrant labor,” said Roche, who worked in New York’s international banking sector for 20 years. “We need to move away from that via [greater] mechanization and a change in language to emphasize that all work is good.”

The race between Ellmers and Roche is one consequence of the push by top GOP leaders and business lobbies for an immigration bill that would sharply increase the inflow of low-wage foreign workers, despite the huge numbers of unemployed or non-working Americans.

Next week, GOP leaders will use their spring strategy session in Cambridge, Md., to push Republican legislators to back an emerging proposal that would provide a form of amnesty, sometimes dubbed “legalization,” to roughly 12 million immigrants. The proposal would also increase the current inflow of non-agriculture guest workers, now around 650,000 per year, for use in the food, retail, construction, hospitality and professional sectors.

“If there are people who have not lost their jobs to illegal immigrants, they will if Renee Ellmers succeeds,” said William Gheen, founder of the N.C.-based Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. “The tea party people are going to go with Frank Roche.”

Ellmers declared her support for more guest workers and for citizenship for illegals after they complete a number of steps in a Jan. 18 op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer.

“If an individual wants to come to this country to work, to provide for his family and contribute to his community, he should be allowed to do so,” Ellmers wrote.

The pressure for an inflow of low-wage workers comes from local businesses, Ellmers said.

“The local leaders I met with covered a variety of industries, including housing, construction, hospitality, restaurant, research and development, high tech and agriculture,” she wrote. “I was impressed with their candor and sense of urgency.”

“We just had a real hard time getting local workers,” farmer Faylene Whittaker told TheDC. Last October, she and 26 other farmers met “with Ms. Ellmers … and we told her that tomatoes can’t wait three, four, five days to be picked.”

Whittaker says her farm has to use guest-workers because Americans won’t do the stoop labor at roughly $10 an hour. “I have no clue” what wage would persuade Americans to take the stoop job, she said, adding that “I know my [foreign] workers are putting their kids through college” on the salaries they earn in the fields.

The farm also uses two-man tomato-picking machines, but those can only pick tomatoes that are intended for food-processing companies, Whittaker said.

She hire local workers for her seasonal landscaping business, she says.

Employers have a lot of clout in the state.

In August, Democrats and Republicans legislators pushed through a law allowing employers to hire illegal immigrants for up to nine months before using an electronic network to verify the workers’ eligibility to work.

North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, vetoed the law, but the legislators overrode his veto.

“It has a huge loophole for probably up to 30 percent of our businesses in North Carolina to not use e-verification, which tells whether you’re hiring illegal immigrants for the jobs,” McCrory said before his veto was bypassed. “I want to save North Carolina jobs for citizens of North Carolina, especially us being the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country,” he said.