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By Renee Schoof and Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The inability of Congress to solve the problem of how to keep immigration legal, orderly and economically productive is rattling through the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina.

It’s a key issue for several important North Carolina industries and institutions, and many backed a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill passed by the Senate last year, but left to wither in the House of Representatives. Among them: the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte, high-tech companies, universities and the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

But when it comes to which party controls the Senate, the marquee question of the midterm elections, politics can trump policy.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking a second six-year term, voted for the Senate bill. At the time, she said the it would secure the borders, boost the economy, decrease the deficit and improve the rules governing the issue.

Thom Tillis, her Republican opponent, said the bill would have provided legal status that amounts to “amnesty” for immigrants without documentation, and fail to tighten the borders. He contends that Congress should secure the border before it passes any new legislation that would spell out how to handle the estimated 11 million people now in the country illegally.

Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, hasn’t called for deporting them, but hasn’t said what the alternative should be, either.

His views would seem to put him at odds with a pro-business organization and powerful political player like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It supported the overhaul — which included an earned path to citizenship — “because America cannot compete and win in a global economy without attracting and retaining the world’s most talented and hardest workers.”

Moreover, chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said in January that the group, which scores members of Congress on how they vote on its top policy priorities, would “pull out all the stops” to get an immigration bill through Congress.

Even so, in North Carolina, the chamber has so far spent $4.7 million to defeat Hagan and elect Tillis.

It’s a strategy the chamber has adopted in other states with equally competitive Senate contests that could determine party control. The group is spending money to help defeat Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Udall of Colorado, all of whom backed the immigration bill, as did every other Democrat in the chamber. Fourteen Senate Republicans also voted for it.

The chamber’s campaign spending shows its goal is to maintain the Republican majority in the House and help the GOP gain control in the Senate, and with it power over the committees and the voting schedule on the Senate floor.

“We are not a single-issue organization,” said chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes, noting that taxes, regulation and trade also are important issues to the group’s members.

Just as the chamber has been a traditional Republican ally, Latino voters have played a similar role for Democrats. A recent poll shows those who have decided favor Hagan by a large margin, but 45 percent were undecided, not necessarily a good sign for the Democratic incumbent.

Though Latinos only account for two percent of the North Carolina electorate, and fewer than 20 percent cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections, a close contest like North Carolina’s Senate race can turn on the smallest developments.

Two billboards, in Raleigh and Durham, went up recently that criticize Hagan for previous votes and claim that she’s no friend of immigrants. The billboards were supported with donations and backed by a coalition of Latino families.

They refer to votes in 2006, when Hagan was in the state Senate, for changes in the law that required a Social Security number to obtain a driver’s license. The measure passed and became law. She voted in 2010 on a procedural matter that killed the DREAM Act, a bill that provided legal status for children of immigrants without documentation who met certain criteria, such as graduation from high school and having no record of serious crimes.

However, the Senate immigration bill in 2013 that Hagan did support included the DREAM Act.

The Senate measure would have increased the number of Border Patrol agents to more than 38,000, added 700 miles of fence on the southern border with Mexico and created a pathway for citizenship for immigrants without documentation who met certain requirements, including paying a fine.

It additionally required a mandatory employment verification system and a system to record the exit of visa-holders at airports and sea ports.

The North Carolina Agribusiness Council thought the bill was a good compromise, but didn’t support it in the end because it felt the cap on temporary farm workers was too low, said Erica Peterson, the group’s executive vice president. Agriculture, the state’s largest industry, has a shortage of legal U.S. workers to plant, tend, harvest and process farm products, she said.

With Congress so divided and no prospects for immigration changes ahead, immigration advocates have expected President Barack Obama to provide temporary legal status for some of the nation’s undocumented immigrants. Tillis has said he would vote against any nominee to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder who did not agree to stop Obama from doing that.

Hagan has said that Obama should not take executive action on immigration, but leave the decision to Congress.
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The Candidates on Immigration Policy

1. How should the nation resolve the issue of an estimated 11 million people here illegally?

Tillis: “The president and Senator Kay Hagan have failed on immigration policy and now the president says he’s going to act on his own after the election. I’m opposed to amnesty and any legislation or unilateral action by the president that would give amnesty to those who are here illegally. Sen. Hagan supported President Obama’s immigration bill, which provided amnesty to illegal immigrants and failed to secure our borders. Washington should prove its commitment to securing the border before we pass any other immigration reform. Congress does not even have the credibility to debate immigration reform until it proves it can secure the border. If Congress proves it can secure the border, I predict we will quickly achieve bipartisan consensus on improving our immigration system.”

Hagan: “These individuals should have to pass a criminal background check, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and go to the back of the line before they become eligible for temporary status.”

2. What do you think of e-verify, the Internet-based system that allows employers do determine if employees are eligible to work in the United States? Should Congress support it?

Tillis: “I support e-verify, which helps ensure that employers are not hiring illegal immigrants. While an e-verify system is necessary, we also need to make sure that it doesn’t inadvertently become an unnecessary regulatory burden on some industries.”

Hagan: “Yes. The bipartisan bill improved and updated the e-verify system that will help make sure everyone plays by the same rules.”

3. Should Congress fund a system that lets officials check in foreigners who enter and now if they overstay their visa?

Tillis: “It is imperative that we know who enters and leaves the United States, and an entry and exit system is a useful tool that can help keep our nation safe. President Obama and Senator Hagan have failed to ensure we know who is entering or exiting our country in order to keep us safe and secure. If a 12-year-old can enter across our border, surely a member of ISIS or someone wishing to do us harm can get across our border undetected. Having a secure border means having the ability to monitor border crossings by those who are not citizens.”

Hagan: “The bipartisan bill improved tracking of entry and exit to ensure that people who overstay their visas are not allowed to remain in the country. This is an important step to secure our border.”

4. Should the number of legal immigrants be reduced?

Tillis: “Not across the board. Legal immigration is a source of strength for our country as is respect for the rule of law. We are a nation of immigrants, and we shouldn’t hinder the legal immigration process, which would prevent law-abiding people from achieving their American Dream. But President Obama and Senator Hagan’s failure on illegal immigration is making it more difficult for those who want to come here legally.”

Hagan: “Our immigration system is in need of reform to make it more predictable, fairer, and more responsive to economic needs. We must also be working to ensure that our educational system is producing American graduates for the jobs that U.S. companies need to fill.”

Photo: Mr T in DC via Flickr

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

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