Immigration may be factor in close North Carolina Senate race

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.