Rep. Ellmers backs conditional amnesty, fuels primary challenge

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.

Roche is careful not to alienate the many influential local businesses that now use low-wage foreign workers.

To reform immigration, the federal government should allow many illegals to become seasonal guest workers for farms and the hospitality industry, but should also halve the national immigrant inflow of one million per year, he said.

“There’s a way to do it that doesn’t ruin the prospects for every other American, particularly the low-skilled,” Roche said.

Currently, the large inflow of illegals and guest workers is undermining Americans’ willingness to work in starter jobs, he said. “Business leaders … recognize that they don’t want to work with [illegal immigrants and guest-workers] who don’t speak English, aren’t like them, and are not from this country,” he said.

The government should also scale back the inflow of university-trained guest workers, who are taking the middle-class jobs sought by American graduates and upward-bound high-school students, he said. In 2013, North Carolina companies and universities asked the federal government to provide work permits to import 11,000 foreign graduates, double the 5,000 requests in 2010.

During campaign meetings, voters talk about the loss of graduate jobs to guest workers “all the time,” he said. “Immigration is impacting Americans across the spectrum from bottom to top,” he said.

In her January op-ed, Ellmers did not suggest any limit to the inflow of either low-skilled workers or university-trained workers.

If Ellmers’ policy become law, hundreds of thousands of additional immigrants and guest workers will be allowed to compete for jobs against the roughly 340,000 unemployed North Carolina voters and the 430,000 high school kids who are expected to join the workforce over the next several years.

A 2013 Gallup survey showed that roughly 138 million foreigners want to work in the United States. North Carolina has a population of less than 10 million people.

“Limits on worker inflow are an important part of that discussion … but just because she didn’t give specifics on that in this op-ed doesn’t mean it’s not something she is investigating and learning more about,” Tom Doheny, Ellmers’ communications director told TheDC.

“Bringing our immigration system and worker visa program into the 21st century would benefit many of the business and farms across the 2nd District who are currently unable to get the workers they want and need because of our outdated and painfully slow system,” Doheny added.

Ellmers doesn’t support amnesty or a pathway to citizenship for the illegals, Doheny said.

But her op-ed also offered a way for longtime illegals — and guest workers — to get citizenship.

“We must also acknowledge that these people have lived in our communities for years and are a vital part of many farms and businesses right here in the 2nd District,” she wrote.

“I believe that in addition to securing our borders, the best course of action is one that provides an earned legal work status that would not be given indiscriminately,” she wrote. “Instead, it would be contingent on some combination of paying a penalty, admitting to violating the law, and verifying identity.”

“Only after this legal work status is obtained can individuals have the opportunity to begin the naturalization process — if that is their choice,” she continued.

That process isn’t amnesty, Doheny said, because Ellmers wrote that “when those laws are violated, there is a price that needs to be paid.”

Voters “can see right through that,” Roche responded.

Ellmers also said in the op-ed that her position was shaped by non-business advocates in her community.

The views of business leaders “were echoed by immigrants, faith leaders and reform-minded groups in the district [who] told me that their greatest fears include the threat of their families being broken apart and the inability to provide for their loved ones,” said Ellmers, who was elected in 2010 with the strong support of local tea party activists in 2010.

A June 2013 poll of likely voters in North Carolina by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors low levels of immigration, showed that “61% oppose the increases in guest workers authorized under the [Senate’s June 2013] bill, including 42% who said the increases are ‘much too high.'”

Also, “52 percent of North Carolina voters oppose [the Senate’s 2013 immigration proposal] including 33 percent who said they are ‘strongly opposed’ … and only 10 percent said they ‘strongly support’ it,” said the poll by FAIR, which wants to reduce the nation’s annual inflow of one million immigrants and 650,000 non-agricultural temporary workers.

“The most powerful thing we have to say is that Renee Ellmers is on the same side as Barack Obama on immigration issues,” said Gheen, who highlighted recent polls showing that moderate and GOP-leaning voters strongly oppose any immigration increase.

Ellmers won her 2010 race narrowly. After a favorable redistricting process, she won easily in 2012. In 2014, she’s facing Roche in the primary.

Ellmers’ press statements suggest she’ll focus on Obamacare, if she wins the primary.

“In North Carolina alone, nearly 473,000 people have been impacted by cancellation notices on health insurance plans they were promised they could keep,” she said in a Jan. 15 statement. “I will continue to work tirelessly to repeal this law before it can inflict any more damage on our economy and the American people,” said the statement.

The winner of the primary will face a well-funded Democratic opponent in November.

The Democratic primary will include Keith Crisco, a former state commerce secretary, and Houston Barnes, a lawyer. A musician, Clay Aiken, may also run for the seat.

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