City Council faced a packed chamber at its July 24 meeting, with many there for a public hearing to voice their anger over proposed involuntary annexations of three areas south and southwest of city limits. The crowd was so big, in fact, that many were directed to an overflow room to watch the proceedings on TV.
However, the greatest hue and cry at the seven-hour marathon meeting wasn’t over annexation (which won’t face a Council vote until Aug. 14), but rather illegal immigration, an issue that conservative Council member Carl Mumpower has pushed repeatedly over the past year. Of the 18 people who spoke on the immigration issue at the public hearing, all but three asked the Council to back a suggestion by Asheville Police Chief William Hogan that the city not enter into a relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At Mumpower’s behest, Council had asked Hogan several months ago to explore the idea, which would empower a handful of designated police officers to become de facto immigration-enforcement agents under ICE’s direct supervision.
“I have a real hesitancy” to do that, Hogan told Council members. In addition, he said, “We haven’t even been able to get ICE to sit down and talk about it with us.” The Henderson County Sheriff’s Office has already signed such an agreement with the feds, but it, too, has faced delays with ICE and has yet to be trained, Hogan said. As it stands, immigration offenses are civil violations and the police department is only authorized to handle criminal violations. Since ICE has been unresponsive, and the city could face costly litigation if it tried to enforce immigration laws unilaterally, Hogan suggested to Council that it drop the idea. The department, he said, would continue to check the residency status of suspected criminals and notify ICE, which would then have to issue a detainer before the police could detain a suspected illegal alien.
Hearing Hogan and the heartfelt pleas of speakers, the Council voted 6-1 (with Mumpower against) to follow Hogan’s recommendation.
Many speakers said the city’s priorities were misplaced. “Why are we trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist?” one asked.
A few speakers said that immigration enforcement is indeed a problem, but one that must be addressed at the federal rather than local level. Several other speakers, many of them legal immigrants or naturalized children of immigrants from places such as Mexico and Colombia, said the city would only set the table for racial profiling and civil rights abuses if such an arrangement with ICE was approved.
Edna Campos, a Texas native whose parents came from Mexico, echoed many when she said the backlash against Latinos has already begun. The abuse of legal immigrants encompasses everything from slurs to admonishments to leave the country, Campos and others said.
“When I first visited here with my husband, I found this area to be very welcoming,” said Campos, who now lives here and works as a political consultant and organizer. “It’s sad that Asheville, in the last few years, has become less welcoming.”
At the other end of the spectrum, local anti-illegal immigration activist Cathy Lack told Council, “You have to take a stand as an American and do the right thing.” Fellow activist Cathy Rhodarmer added she was fed up with illegal immigrants coming here intent only on making money, with little interest in assimilating or becoming legal residents. “My tax money should go to my family and my community, not illegal foreign nationals,” she said. “I love this country and I want people who come to this country to love it as well.”
Mayor Terry Bellamy said she was conflicted on the issue because of information she has received, most notably a recent conversation with a U.S. Attorney who told her that unprecedented levels of methamphetamine and other drugs are moving into the area largely through illegal aliens. But she backed Hogan’s suggestion anyway, saying, “I’m going to get nasty e-mails no matter how I vote.”
Vice Mayor Holly Jones said she was conflicted, too, but added that, “The issue, right or wrong, is a scary, divisive issue,” and that city enforcement of immigration would be “a bad use of community energy.” She also pointed out her adopted daughter from Guatemala and the three-year struggle to secure her citizenship, but lamented that her daughter would still likely face the harsh side of the immigration debate.
“Because of her beautiful dark skin and eyes I know she’s going to experience this [discrimination] somewhere along the way.”
Mumpower, who has championed immigration enforcement as a means to combat drugs and other crime, said he would not be deterred and that the Council could expect further efforts by him to address the issue. “I will be back as soon as I can with more proposals,” he vowed.
Mumpower, however, bristled at the insinuation from a few speakers that his stance on immigration was discriminatory.
“I want to say something very clearly: I am the ally of people who come here to this country legally to uplift it,” he said. “But I’m the enemy of people who come to this country illegally simply to use it.”
For more details and a full report on the Council’s meeting, check out the Wed., Aug. 1, edition of Xpress.
— Hal L. Millard, staff writer