Asheville City Council

“Workers are being exploited, and it’s the employers that are benefitting.”

— Council member Bryan Freeborn on illegal immigrants

The topic of illegal immigration is muy caliente these days, and the Asheville City Council waded into the fray at its July 18 work session. A series of suggestions by Council member Carl Mumpower had a mixed reception, with some Council members saying the city must proceed with care in attempting to address the issue of illegal immigrants.

Mumpower proposed a three-pronged approach: First, fund and support the transportation of illegal aliens arrested for violating city ordinances to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s processing facility in Atlanta — beginning with those caught for drug trafficking. Second, explore options for city enforcement of federal immigration laws and for penalizing local businesses that knowingly hire illegals. And third, pass and submit a Council resolution to the city’s state and federal representatives “supporting prompt and meaningful intervention policies with illegal immigrants and those who employ them.”

Although the bulk of Latino immigrants — both legal and illegal — live in border states such as California, Arizona and Texas, North Carolina has consistently ranked at or near the top in terms of per capita growth in south-of-the-border immigration in recent years. Mumpower said there are more than 300,000 illegal aliens statewide. (A 2003 estimate from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, now the CIS, pegged the state’s illegal alien population at 206,000; that figure includes all illegals, but Latinos are the predominant bloc.)

Council members took no formal action on July 18, but they agreed to take a more in-depth look at the issue with the help of local law-enforcement officials and City Attorney Bob Oast, making sure that any future initiatives respect the city’s legal immigrant population. Council also agreed in principle that the city should seek ways to ensure that illegal immigrants who break the law and pose a threat to public safety — particularly drug traffickers, other felons and repeat offenders — are turned over to the USCIS for deportation.

“If you break laws in our city, we’re going to transport you out,” Mumpower declared. But his Council colleagues balked at both the legislative resolution, which many believed would be a wasted effort, and at a crackdown on employers, which several Council members felt would be too difficult and costly to enforce.

Capt. Tim Splain of the Asheville Police Department gave Mumpower’s ideas a cautious thumbs up, saying, “There would be a positive impact if we were able to do this.” But the USCIS, he noted, has its own criteria for deportation. Typically, said Splain, the agency takes only those immigrants it knows are here illegally — usually because they’ve been deported before and are back in the country again. Sometimes the USCIS will deport someone after they’ve been convicted locally and have served their time. And locally, said Splain, there’s been no appreciable surge in felony crime associated with illegal aliens; most incidents have been minor traffic offenses.

Splain also emphasized how hard it can be to tell who’s legal and who’s not. Increasingly, he said, illegals are obtaining very official-looking immigration documents. And unless someone is in the USCIS’s database, it can be difficult to determine their status, even if they don’t have documents. As proof, Splain cited a local traffic stop of a van containing 18 undocumented Latinos who were eventually set free for want of the information needed to detain them.

While Mumpower and Council explore the city’s options, U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, has sponsored legislation that would earmark Homeland Security funds for law-enforcement agencies in Buncombe and seven other Western North Carolina counties to offset the cost of transporting illegal aliens to Atlanta. In a similar vein, Rep. Sue Myrick, R-Mecklenburg, has introduced a bill that would establish a similar facility in Charlotte.

Minding the store

While ridding the city of law-breaking aliens is an essential part of Mumpower’s plan, he put most of the blame on the backs of those businesses that knowingly hire illegals, contrary to federal law. But cracking down on such employers — by pulling their business permits — is fraught with difficulties, and Council members said they’re not willing to deal with it and don’t feel the city has the personnel needed for enforcement.

Council member Jan Davis, who owns a tire store, said he’d once unwittingly hired an illegal alien, whom he characterized as a good man and a fine employee. The man had official-looking papers, said Davis, and the business had performed its due diligence. Eventually, the man’s illegal status was discovered, and he quit. Even if small businesses follow the letter of the law, noted Davis, they often lack the resources to determine job applicants’ legal status.

Council member Bryan Freeborn agreed, though he said his experience in the construction business in Texas has shown him that certain employers are indeed a problem. In many cases, he said, “Workers are being exploited, and it’s the employers that are benefitting.”

Mumpower, meanwhile, asked that he be allowed to bring back more specific information and proposals on how to handle scofflaw employers at a later date, winning Council’s agreement.

How green is our valley?

City Council gave a tenative go-ahead to initiatives pitched by Council members Robin Cape and Brownie Newman aimed at making both Asheville and city government more environmentally responsible.

As Cape envisions it, the proposed Environment & Energy Conservation Advisory Committee would include technical experts, representatives of local environmental groups and interested citizens. The group would be charged with building a big-picture approach to making Asheville a better environmental steward.

Considering such issues as rising energy costs, new and emerging technologies, and overall environmental awareness, the committee would help formulate policies relating to community and economic development, transportation, pollution prevention and health protection.

Mayor Terry Bellamy said she supports the idea as long as the group is mindful of its advisory capacity. “Council is not going to rubber-stamp everything that comes out of this committee,” she warned.

Newman, a proponent of mass transportation and “green” building, said he’d like the city to consider ways to give developers more incentive to build energy-efficient structures. Council could also require green technologies to be used in future municipal building projects, he said. For example, Newman proposed that any new municipal buildings in excess of 5,000 square feet be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified. Buildings, said Cape, account for about 48 percent of energy waste nationwide, and she suggested that Asheville join the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, whose experts could help the city curb its energy use.

Newman urged the city to gradually replace its bus fleet with hybrid-electric and alternative-fuel vehicles, noting that biodiesel now costs only about 5 cents per gallon more than regular diesel and burns considerably cleaner. He also suggested paying city employees to give up their subsidized parking spaces and encouraging them to car-pool, bike, walk or take mass transit to work.

The entire Council endorsed these ideas in principle, though Davis and Mumpower remained skeptical about certain aspects based on costs. Mumpower said that while he supports green building, he’s seen his investment in a green development slated for Broadway come to naught because the added costs brought the project to a halt. “That’s a shame, because I was looking forward to locating my office there,” he said, adding that a new green city fire station has also had significant cost overruns.

Davis, too, voiced support for the new initiative while sounding some caveats. “Committees scare me, but this is a good one,” he said. But he cautioned Newman about spending city money on hybrid buses.

“I think that is an interim technology,” said Davis. “It’s not the be all and end all; I would hate to see us tie ourselves to that.”

In other news

Mumpower, who has served as a liaison to the city’s Public Art Board for the past three years, asked Council to consider offering cash awards to artists to help place more public art in the community. He proposed a competition in which the winning artist would receive $10,000 and their submission would be donated to the city. A similar initiative for filmmakers would carry a $1,000 award. To grease the skids, Mumpower even offered to fund the awards the first year if the board took responsibility for raising subsequent funding.

Council members applauded Mumpower’s idea but said there were too many unanswered questions and concerns. Some feared the city might be stepping on the toes of the board and other local arts groups.

Art Board member Bill Fishburne told Council that the board endorses Mumpower’s idea in general, but Council members wanted more. “We would love to do this,” said Freeborn, but he and other Council members voiced uncertainty about how best to proceed.

Mumpower asked for more time to flesh out his plan and bring it back for further consideration. He called Council’s concerns reasonable but said, “We should press on and get something done.”

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