Crossing the line

In his years on the Asheville City Council, Carl Mumpower has been plenty vocal about his stance on illegal immigration. He even blew the whistle on a local manufacturer, sparking a raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency several months ago. And during his 2008 run against U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, the candidate ramped up his accusations that local businesses are complicit in hiring illegal workers. But whatever the outcome in that race, Mumpower will have to make do without the backing of a large group of local manufacturers who have historically supported pro-business, conservative candidates.

Fallout: Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower’s tirades against illegal workers, and his stance that employers are to blame, have ticked off local manufacturers. Photos By Jonathan Welch

Ever since an August raid on the Mills Manufacturing plant in Asheville (see “Feds Arrest 57,” Aug. 20 Xpress), Mumpower’s comments have caused a rift between the conservative politician and the Manufacturers Executive Association, an advocate for the manufacturing community in Western North Carolina. And amid continued accusations about other manufacturers’ use of illegal workers, the group announced—a mere week before Election Day—that it would not endorse the Council member’s bid for Congress.

“Based on Dr. Mumpower’s comments and actions, the Executive Board of the Manufacturers Executive Association cannot justifiably support his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives,” reads an Oct. 27 statement issued by MEA President Jeff Imes, who’s also chief operating officer at W.P. Hickman Co. in south Asheville. “He is not conversant about the immigration issue in this country and is not really interested in engaging with area manufacturers.”

An affiliate of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit MEA’s membership list includes Volvo Construction Equipment and Tyco Electronics as well as Mills Manufacturing, which was raided by ICE agents Aug. 12 after Mumpower tipped them off and then publicly took credit for it.

Irreconcilable differences

According to Imes, the board made its decision during an Oct. 23 meeting. But signs of irreconcilable differences date back to the August raid.

In the wake of the arrest of nearly 60 employees at Mills Manufacturing and Mumpower’s ensuing comments, the MEA board sent a letter inviting him to participate in “an open discussion and dialogue … to review the immigration issue and policies in this country and its effect on local manufacturers.”

But less than a month later, the board retracted that invitation after Mumpower continued to blame local employers for exacerbating the problem of illegal workers.

“He wasn’t open to a discussion,” Imes explains. “He just wanted a platform to air his views.”

Meanwhile, Mumpower’s allegations about another local plant, both in press releases and on his Web site, prompted the threat of legal action. An e-mail from attorney Jonathan Yarbrough in early October advised Mumpower to remove from his campaign Web site all references to Plasticard-Locktech International and its alleged use of illegal workers or the company would “take necessary action to protect its image and its interests as an employer of choice in Asheville and Western North Carolina.”

For a group accustomed to conservatives’ pro-business leanings, Mumpower’s position is both puzzling and alarming. “He’s completely alienated anybody who would vote for him,” Imes asserts. “In an election, you usually shore up your base; I think he’s eroding his traditional base.”

Giveth and taketh: Manufacturers Executive Association President Jeff Imes released a statement declining to support Mumpower’s bid for Congress.

Group spokesman Fredrick Reese agrees, saying, “He’s angered these folks to the point where they don’t even want to sit with him. His comments in the news seem to indicate, if not outright state, that they are trying to hire illegal workers.”

Put to the test

Mumpower, meanwhile, shows no signs of backing down. In a statement following the group’s rescinded invitation, he pulled no punches.

“The MEA of WNC is absolutely correct that I am entrenched in my position on illegal immigration. I have absolutely no sympathy for American companies who fund the flood of illegals into this country with jobs and money,” the statement reads. “I believe they have conspired behind a mask of legitimacy to exploit this cheap imported-labor pool and the rest of us who are picking up the hidden costs. I can understand why they would not want me to have direct access to their membership—they are not accustomed to being called cowards.”

Imes and others, however, maintain that their ability to verify the eligibility of workers they hire is limited. The federal I-9 form, required for any new hire, relies on photo identification and documents that can be forged.

Yarbrough, a labor-law specialist who represented Locktech in its response to Mumpower, says employers should not be held responsible if an individual is able to beat the system.

“If you have a valid I-9, the presumption is that they are eligible to work,” he says. “Employers are not in a position to determine what is real and what is fake.”

In addition, he notes, workplace discrimination based on a person’s race or national origin is illegal. (Mumpower has cited high concentrations of non-English speakers at a given work site as evidence of illegal workers.)

The candidate has also championed the E-Verify system, which taps into a federal database to verify Social Security numbers. But that resource, too, has its limits, Yarbrough points out. The system can be used only for new hires, not applicants, meaning you have to give someone a job before you can attempt to check up on them. And then, employers only have three days to perform the search. After that, says Yarbrough, “That resource is no longer available.”

And then there’s the question of error. The E-Verify system has been known to reject legal workers up to 7 percent of the time, Yarbrough notes. Some states have even attempted to ban its use, though it remains voluntary in North Carolina.

No regrets

But none of those arguments hold water with Mumpower, who says there are a number of private verification services employers can use. And even E-Verify, he asserts, would work better if it were used consistently.

As for the political fallout from his crusade, Mumpower says he has no regrets. “It’s just amazing to me how everyone expects me to prostitute myself,” he observes. “It’s no surprise that nobody with integrity gets into Congress.”

Imes, meanwhile, argues that Mumpower is taking the fight to the wrong people. And creating situations like the Mills raid, which forced the plant to stop production, doesn’t help anyone, he maintains.

“Employers are put between a rock and a hard place,” says Imes. “The climate overall is one of … just a concern that there is a witch hunt out there.

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