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Dueling ‘Amnesty’ Claims in N.C.

We’ll sum up competing TV ads from two Republicans vying in a North Carolina House primary like this: My opponent is “pro-amnesty.” Response: No, you are.

To which we say: Neither is.

The dueling “amnesty” claims come in TV ads from Woody White and David Rouzer, who are seeking the Republican nomination for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District.

White’s claim that Rouzer is “pro-amnesty” is based on Rouzer’s past lobbying efforts related to the AgJOBS Act of 2007. That bill would have provided a path to legal residency for those already employed as hired farm workers. But such workers would need to continue farm work for several years and wait more than 10 years to earn citizenship — along with meeting other requirements such as paying fines and back taxes, learning English, and passing a citizenship exam.

Rouzer’s claim is even more thinly based. His ad says White is “part of a group that is pushing for amnesty.” But that’s based on White’s membership in a lawyer’s association that advocates allowing driver’s licenses to be issued to immigrants who are in the country illegally, so they can purchase car insurance. That’s not amnesty. And in any case, it’s a position that White does not share.

Here’s White’s opening volley:

And here’s Rouzer’s response ad:

The 7th District seat is currently held by nine-term Democrat Mike McIntyre, who announced he will not seek reelection. McIntyre narrowly defeated Rouzer, a former aide to former Sens. Jesse Helms and Elizabeth Dole, in the 2012 general election. White is an attorney.

Before we dig into the particulars of each candidate’s claims, we’d like to begin by noting that both candidates are using the word “amnesty” in a way that isn’t strictly accurate. As we have noted in the past, “amnesty” is an emotion-laden term that leads many to believe that plans call for immediate, permanent legal status for illegal immigrants. Indeed several dictionaries define “amnesty” as a pardon of past offenses, or clemency. Neither of the candidates supports anything close to that for most of the immigrants now in the U.S. illegally.

The White Ad

We’ll start with the White ad, since it came first.

Narrator: David Rouzer’s a Washington lobbyist who lobbied in support of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Rouzer’s the only candidate to support amnesty and giving illegal immigrants benefits like free health care and driver’s licenses. Lobbyist David Rouzer is another pro-amnesty Republican who’ll cave in to Obama.

White: I’m a conservative who will oppose amnesty and will never stop fighting Obama’s attacks on North Carolina.

Rouzer faced similar claims in the 2012 Republican primary against Ilario Pantano for the same congressional seat. The charge is based on lobbying work Rouzer did in favor of the AgJOBS Act of 2007. Formally the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, the bill — supported by agribusiness interests and the United Farm Workers  — sought to allow agricultural workers living in the country illegally to gain temporary immigration status and, after several years of agricultural work, to be eligible for permanent residency. The bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, but it had a number of Republican co-sponsors as well.

Records filed in May 2007 with the North Carolina secretary of state show that Rouzer registered as a lobbyist for the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. to lobby on the issue of “comprehensive immigration reform.”

In a 2012 debate with Pantano, Rouzer explained his involvement in the issue.

Rouzer, April 4, 2012: When I left the Bush administration and came home, I did some work for clients that had North Carolina interests, largely tobacco interests. I had some farmers who came to me and said ‘David, you know how bad this immigration issue is. We cannot get the legal labor we need to get the crops out of the field.’ They said, ‘Will you work to pull together the N.C. farm leadership to see if we can find something, our best opportunity to get the reforms we need to our legal guest worker programs so we can actually use it?’ So I pulled together the leadership and said these are what your options are. President Bush had his national immigration package moving forward, I said my best advice to you, if you are going to get the majority of what you want is to get behind the AgJOBS Bill and work to get it included in the plan. … The vast majority of my work was consulting work providing advice. … We’ve got to have a solution. … Agriculture is a huge component to the 7th Congressional District. You just can’t go out there and pack them up and ship them all home, and not expect to pull the rug out from underneath a $75 billion industry in North Carolina.

This isn’t a black or white issue, but there is a path forward. The path forward is to take those who are working, and let them continue to work. Then it’s much easier to identify those who are not here for the right reasons, who are causing trouble, who are driving drunk, and deport them immediately.

So, was the AgJOBS Act an “amnesty” bill? The conservative Heritage Foundation concluded it was, as did the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, a group that says it is “leading the fight against illegal immigration and amnesty.” But that’s not an accurate description, at least not if one considers amnesty to be an unconditional pardon for all of those who are currently in the country illegally.

For starters, the AgJOBS Act only applies to the little more than 1 million hired farm workers currently in the country illegally — or about one-seventh of the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. workforce, Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, told us in a phone interview. The AgJOBS Act would allow those who could demonstrate they had worked at least 150 days or 863 hours in agriculture over the previous two years to apply for temporary residency, a “blue card.” They would have had to pay a $100 fine, and show that they had never been convicted of a serious crime. If those workers continued to work for three to five years in agriculture (depending on the number of days worked per year), they could then pay a $400 fine and income taxes and become eligible for a green card, permanent residency. Those with green cards could ultimately apply for citizenship, but that requires a minimum five-year waiting period, fines, and requirements to learn English and pass a test of American history and citizenship.  All told, the process to citizenship would take more than 10 years, though it could be as long as 15 years.

When similar permanent residency was afforded to about 1.2 million farm workers in 1986 — through an immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan — by 2004 (18 years later) less than 20 percent of those workers had sought and gained citizenship, Regelbrugge told us in a phone interview.

But the AgJOBS Act can rightly be said to provide an earned path to citizenship for agricultural workers currently in the country illegally. On his campaign website, Rouzer lays out his stance on immigration, and says he favors a plan that would allow employers and unauthorized workers to “come forward to get on track to a legal workforce.” But it’s unclear what exactly he proposes regarding residency status for farm workers and, again, his campaign did not respond to our request for clarification.

Rouzer, campaign website: The current system is so broken employers can follow the letter of the law and hire an illegal worker unknowingly. Often, we discover that these employees have been with their employer for more than 10 to 20 years and have demonstrated an excellent work ethic. Therefore, a system should be established that identifies the illegal worker and allows both the employee and the employer to come forward to get on track to a legal workforce without disrupting the economy.

But Rouzer leaves no doubt about his position on granting a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. “The more than 12 to 15 million illegal immigrants that have come to this country over the past 30 years should not be eligible for citizenship or enjoy government benefits at any point in time,” Rouzer states.

 The Rouzer Ad

In response to White’s ad, Rouzer aired an ad in which Rouzer speaks direct-to-camera and states, “Here’s the truth. I’m against amnesty, always have been and I always will be. I’m a conservative in the private sector. Mr. White’s job is different. Trial lawyers sue businesses. And he’s part of a group that is pushing for amnesty. Isn’t that rich.”

The very thin scrap of evidence on which this claim rests is that White’s law firm website carries the logo for North Carolina Advocates for Justice. Advocates for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association of lawyers dedicated to protecting individual rights, and White is a member, the group said.

So is the group “pushing for amnesty”?

Todd Barlow, political affairs counsel for Advocates for Justice, told us in a phone interview that the group does not lobby on federal issues and takes no position on whether the government ought to legalize immigrants who are in the country illegally or provide a path to residency. “We’ve never lobbied for amnesty,” Barlow said.

Barlow said the extent of the group’s advocacy related to illegal immigrants is that it has lobbied at the state level in favor of issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants in the state illegally.

“If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can’t buy car insurance,” Barlow said. “If folks are going to be here driving on our roads, we’d like for them to be insured.”

The group’s 2013-2014 legislative agenda for “immigrant rights” reads as follows:

Advocates for Justice legislative agenda: All residents of North Carolina should have access to testing for drivers’ privileges or permits. We oppose legislation intended to marginalize residents based upon their immigration status or lack of English proficiency.

That position is far short of anything anyone could rightly call amnesty. Moreover, although White is a member of Advocates for Justice, his campaign website makes clear that he does not agree with the organization on that issue.

White campaign website: Woody White opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants, and opposes giving taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants like in-state tuition, driver licenses and free healthcare.

To sum up, neither candidate supports “amnesty” according to legal definitions of the word. Rouzer in the past has supported an earned path to citizenship for some agricultural workers, but not for any other immigrants in the country illegally. And White, despite displaying a logo for Advocates for Justice, does not support the group’s position in favor of granting driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.

— Robert Farley