This story originally appeared in The Daily Advance.
BARCO -- Sixteen Republicans vying to serve northeastern North Carolina in Congress took the stage Tuesday at a forum in Currituck County, where they stressed their support for President Donald Trump and touted their ideas on a host of issues, including illegal immigration, trade and health care.
The Republican parties in six area counties organized Tuesday’s forum, held at Currituck County Middle School the night before early voting was scheduled to begin in the April 30 primary election. The primary is being held to determine party nominees for the special election scheduled for later this year to succeed U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, who passed away in February.
Tuesday’s forum, moderated by Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett, showed the candidates agreed on most — but not all — issues, particularly in taking a hard line against illegal immigration.
Of the 17 Republican candidates on the ballot, only one wasn’t in attendance: Kevin Baiko, a physician from Moyock.
All the candidates agreed with President Trump’s goal of building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing the wall is necessary to address a “crisis” or “national emergency” of increased attempts to cross the border.
The first candidate asked about immigration was Eric Rouse, a Lenoir County commissioner and businessman, who said the wall must be in place before other immigration reforms, including to resolve the residency or citizenship status of children brought to the U.S. illegally years ago by their parents, but many of whom have since integrated into American society.
“We’ve got to build the wall, we know this; we can’t address DACA, we can’t do anything until we know who’s coming across the border,” Rouse said, alluding to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that can defer deportation.
Chimer Clark, of Morehead City, similarly said the border wall is the best place to start in border security and immigration reform.
Numerous other candidates also described the situation at the southern border as dire.
State Rep. Greg Murphy, a doctor from Greenville, said the border is “overrun.” He added there’s “empathy” for immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries, but it is not the U.S.’ “job to be the breadbasket for everyone.”
Currituck Commissioner Mike Payment, a businessman from Grandy, also said the U.S. needs to turn back illegal immigrants, arguing they claim government benefits and therefore make it harder to take care of Americans.
State Rep. Michael Speciale, of New Bern, also claimed that illegal immigrants are bringing drugs, crime, and disease, and those must be addressed. Customs and Border Protection officials have reported most narcotics come through ports of entry, not between them.
Several candidates also explicitly agreed with Trump’s designation of the border situation as a national emergency, including Murphy; Speciale; Michele Nix, a former state Republican Party vice chairwoman of Kinston; and Dr. Joan Perry, also of Kinston.
Trump’s emergency declaration has prompted him to seek to reallocate congressionally-approved funding for military projects to wall construction. The move faces legal challenges as unconstitutional and beyond his authority, and even some Republicans in Congress have opposed the move.
While not disputing the emergency declaration, Graham Boyd, a businessman from Wake Forest, said he disagrees with reallocating military funding for the wall. The money should come from somewhere else, though he acknowledged he didn’t have a specific alternative Tuesday.
Boyd also added that, beyond a border wall, the U.S. needs to address people who overstay their visas, not just those who attempt to cross the border illegally.
Phil Law, a Marine veteran from Jacksonville, also stressed his support for the wall, and said he’s seen that border barriers work. He recounted a military assignment to a border community where he saw a barrier made a difference.
According to published reports, about one-third of the roughly 1,900-mile southern border has barriers to pedestrian or vehicles. Trump has called for 1,000 miles of wall, according to a 2017 PolitiFact article, and its estimated costs vary depending on source. Trump has sought $25 billion for the wall, but also claimed it could be done more cheaply, while both federal and outside analyses have found it could cost more than $20 billion.
Democrats and other critics have opposed Trump’s wall as wasteful and argue for other approaches, including more technology and personnel, to secure the border.
Illegal border crossings are a rising problem, however. An NPR article last month reported more than 66,000 migrants were arrested in February, almost a 10-year high, and Border Patrol agents picked up more than 260,000 people from October to early March, “a 90 percent jump over the same period a year ago.”
The NPR article also explains that, while illegal crossings are below historical highs, border authorities are increasingly dealing with families trying to cross the border, often those seeking asylum from unrest in Central America.
At Tuesday’s forum, candidates also touched on other immigration reforms, and restrictions, they favor.
Currituck Commissioner Paul Beaumont, a defense contractor from Shawboro, called for fixes to the U.S. asylum process, which is facing major backlogs in reviewing cases. He did not specify how seeking asylum should be changed.
Beaumont also offered some support for shutting down the southern border to control immigration, an action Trump recently threatened — despite potential for major economic harms — before backing off and suggesting more tariffs instead. Beaumont suggested Trump should not make threats he’s not prepared to implement.
Francis De Luca, a Marine veteran and former president of the Civitas Institute, of Cary, also supported shutting down the border, and called for restricting immigration; the country should only take “the highest value people to the U.S.,” he said.
Gary Ceres, an East Carolina University employee from Greenville, and Celeste Cairns, a self-described military wife from Emerald Isle, also took hard lines on immigration.
Ceres said he wanted to tax remittances that immigrants send to their home countries — claiming they’re draining wealth from the U.S. — and said government officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement should face charges.
Ceres was alluding to the controversy over “sanctuary cities,” where local law enforcement and officials may choose not to refer illegal immigrants to federal authorities for potential deportation.
Jeff Moore, a former Gov. Pat McCrory staffer and equity trader, of Raleigh, similarly called for consequences for sanctuary cities, including withholding federal funds from them. He also called for welfare reform to reduce incentives for immigrants to “latch on” to federal benefits.
In addition to outlawing sanctuary cities, Cairns called for ending the constitutional right of birthright citizenship.
Apparently alluding to Cairns’ comment about birthright citizenship, Don Cox, a musician from Belhaven, said it would require “rewriting the Bill of Rights,” and would not happen. Notably, birthright citizenship is a constitutional right, but it’s founded in the 14th Amendment, not the original 10 Amendments comprising the Bill of Rights.
State Rep. Phil Shepard, of Jacksonville, called generally for enforcement of current immigration laws, and alleged the Obama administration encouraged illegal immigration through lack of immigration enforcement.