The Council of Independent Business Owners may be one of Buncombe County's best organized, most influential groups. Formed decades ago to represent local business interests (and, some say, to counterbalance the more progressive Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce), CIBO has succeeded in getting its members deeply involved in local issues — largely by running for elected office and by serving on numerous local boards and commissions. You'll find members represented on planning-and-zoning boards, the regional air-quality board and numerous ad hoc committees that influence such key issues as stream buffers, greenways and downtown development.
You'll also find them gathered once a month over breakfast for their "issues meeting." Here's what went down at the most recent installment.
— Margaret Williams
Over eggs, sausage and fruit cups, members of the Council of Independent Business Owners gathered in the Biltmore Square Mall food court on the morning of June 4.
But the placid scene soon grew quite lively, as Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell defended his "sanctuary city" proposal. Part of a larger civil-liberties resolution he aims to bring before Council in the coming months, the proposal would make the Asheville Police Department's current practice of not enforcing federal immigration law official city policy.
"It would also endorse the current practice of our police not to enforce federal law, and reaffirm the mission of the police to protect and serve all the citizens of Asheville," Bothwell told the group. "Cities where local police do not enforce immigration laws are safer than those that do — for all citizens. The police chiefs of Raleigh and Cary have endorsed that idea; the police chief of Los Angeles has endorsed it; and many other police chiefs across the country have followed suit. … All the experts have said that when immigrant communities are not afraid of the local police, they are more likely to report crimes, which leads to a safer community for everyone."
Before they're authorized to enforce immigration law, local police and sheriff's deputies must take a training course, and the local agency must enter into a memorandum of agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Taking aim at critics of his proposal, Bothwell characterized them as "publicly accusing me of wanting to make Asheville a sanctuary for criminals and gangs and people who want to steal your good American jobs." But businesses moving overseas, he asserted, constitute a greater threat to the American economy. And immigrants, on the other hand, "live in the community" and contribute. Bothwell also cited FBI statistics indicating that people born in the U.S. are five times more likely to commit crimes than immigrants.
In his view, immigrants should be offered a path to amnesty that would enable them to contribute more money to the economy, rather than deporting them, which would cost billions. Bothwell added: "I'm guessing most of you here are immigrants or descended from immigrants, and that most of your forebears were not legal in the modern sense. … People who immigrate are fearless — that's what's made America so strong." The blame, he continued, "is directed in the wrong place. It should be directed at Congress" and at large corporations that profit from cheap, illegal labor.
Local insurance agent Steve Eargle noted: "All of us here would really welcome immigrants into this country — I mean, they are the backbone, no doubt about it. But it's never good and it's never right to condone it being done illegally: If it's illegal, it's illegal. Now believe me, we got a situation here, and we need to make it a lot easier to be done legally." Tolerating illegal immigrants, added Eargle, amounts to "a rub" to legal immigrants.
"I agree with you 100 percent," Bothwell replied. "All I'm proposing is that we do what other communities have found best: not have local police enforce federal laws. If a community trusts police, they report crimes."
Continuing the status quo
Audience response was spirited and generally negative. Tom Leavesley roundly condemned Bothwell's proposal, declaring, "I'm from Houston; illegal immigrants have ruined a large part of this country. I can't begin to tell you how bad the school system is down there. I don't know whether you've naive or delusional.
"If you let illegal immigrants in, the police are going to have far worse issues than they do now," he predicted.
Bothwell, however, stuck to his guns, explaining, "All I'm saying is we do what the police chief is doing right now: not enforce federal immigration law. That's something people keep missing. My resolution, if passed, will continue the current policy."
Local developer Jerry Sternberg asked the crowd: "Have you ever employed an illegal immigrant? No need to put your hand up: You have. We all have. Even if it was nothing but cutting your yard, you've done it."
ICE raids on local manufacturing plants based on information provided by then City Council member Carl Mumpower, noted Sternberg, "were legal … but what message does that send if the city and county go out and harass those employers? We, the employers, we're at the very least negligent. We need to think about the message this sends to industry that wants to locate here. … As CIBO, we've got an economic dog in this fight."
In conclusion, Bothwell stated: "I'm not against enforcing immigration law — I'm against local enforcement. I'm not against enforcing [the laws] on employers — that's where I think we should start. At the same time, we need a change in federal law to make [legal immigration] easier and faster. … We're living in a hugely interconnected world, and these problems are way beyond Asheville."
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.