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As Senate immigration debate begins, special interests want Washington to hear their views

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON As the debate to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws kicks into high gear this week, immigrant advocates, members of law enforcement and leaders from major sectors of the North Carolina economy want to make sure their senators understand what’s important to them.

Dozens more N.C. sheriffs announced this week they do not support the bipartisan Senate proposal now being discussed on Capitol Hill and fear it may lead to more illegal immigration. But other leaders from the agriculture and retail industry are making a special visit to Washington on Wednesday to encourage Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, and Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, to support the measure.

Senators began debate this week on a massive immigration overhaul that would put most of the 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship.

N.C. Green Industry Council president Dennis Niemeyer and Michael Wong of Kimbrell’s Furniture, representing the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, will be joining the Latin American Coalition of Charlotte for a series of meetings with Hagan and Burr’s aides. They’ll also meet with Democratic Reps. Mel Watt of Charlotte and David Price of Chapel Hill, and Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of Jackson County.

Armed with research papers and Census data, Jess George, executive director of the Latin American Coalition of Charlotte, said the small group’s objective is to use the economic argument to press members to support efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship.

“Look, we told the humanitarian story. We’ve told the faith story. We’ve told the education story – about Dreamers (who want to go to college),” she said. “But the hard and fast numbers (are) that immigration and immigration reform help our economy. They help entrepreneurs. They help innovation. And our largest sectors depend heavily not just on the immigrant workforce, but the consumer power of Latinos and immigrants in our state.”

Burr’s spokesman, Robert Reid, said late Tuesday that the senator has concerns about the bill but wants a full debate and open amendment process.

Hagan has yet to say whether she plans to support the Senate proposal. She said in a statement that it’s clear that "our immigration system is badly broken," but she said her top priority is to ensure the proposal benefits the North Carolina economy and also secures the border.

Tuesday afternoon, both senators voted “yes” on a procedural motion to go ahead with debate on the bill.

Many groups in North Carolina oppose the measure, including many local sheriffs. More than 75 North Carolina sheriffs, including Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey and Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews, have asked Hagan and Burr to vote against the immigration bill. In fact, more sheriffs from North Carolina than in any other state have signed a letter to members of Congress that argues the proposal “tolerates both past and future criminal activities.”

“Unfortunately, this flawed immigration bill which was produced by the ‘Gang of Eight’ senators puts the public safety of citizens across the U.S. at risk and hampers the ability of law enforcement officers to do their jobs,” Rockingham County North Carolina Sheriff Sam Page said in a statement Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., estimated senators will have three weeks to offer and debate amendments. He expects a vote in the Senate by July 4.

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez
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