Black takes Wilson's pulse on immigration

Immigration policy and the need for reform is at the forefront of debate at all levels of government. Congressman Diane Black led a round table discussion Tuesday with Wilson County leaders to get a feel for what they are experiencing dealing with legal and illegal immigrants at the local ...
Feb 19, 2013
Black  Photo: Mary E. Hinds • Lebanon Democrat

Congressman Diane Black and former Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe talk during a roundtable discussion on immigration reform held by Black on Tuesday afternoon at the Wilson County Courthouse.

 

Immigration policy and the need for reform is at the forefront of debate at all levels of government.

Congressman Diane Black led a round table discussion Tuesday with Wilson County leaders to get a feel for what they are experiencing dealing with legal and illegal immigrants at the local level.

Immigration policy and the need for reform is at the forefront of debate at all levels of government.

Congressman Diane Black led a round table discussion Tuesday with Wilson County leaders to get a feel for what they are experiencing dealing with legal and illegal immigrants at the local level.

Mayors Randall Hutto and Philip Craighead, Director of Wilson County Schools Mike Davis, former and current Wilson County sheriffs Terry Ashe and Robert Bryan, Rick Smith, newly named University Medical Center chief executive Matt Caldwell and local farmer Roy Denney made up the panel designed to give Black a glimpse of how city and county officials deal with immigration issues.

"My purpose here is not for me to bring you information," she said. "I'm here to get information from you."

Black updated the group on her U Visa Reform Act designed to close loopholes in the U Visa, a program designed to allow illegal immigrant crime victims a temporary legal status in order to assist law enforcement in the prosecution of their assailants. The act also provides for the victim and the victim's immediate family to claim temporary asylum while the case moves through the courts. Black said the U Visa program is abused and used as a "back door to obtaining permanent status" for victims and their immediate and extended families.

Black's reform of the act moves to restrict the number of the victom's family members allowed to remain in the country temporarily to their spouses and their children and limits the duration of their U Visa stay from four to three years.

After a brief discussion of her proposed law, Black turned to the panel for its impression on immigration.

"If you had a magic wand, how would you like to see the issue treated and solved?" she said, adding she would like to go back to the House with an idea about what local mayors, educators and law enforcement officials are experiencing and "what they think would work."

"This is a complex issue," Ashe said. "Even in a town the size of Lebanon and a county like Wilson County immigration is an issue. I've seen a lot of women, and some men, who are the victims of domestic violence who need to stay and testify."

Ashe said regardless of how the adults are handled, his real concern is for their children.

"We don't need to separate children from their parents, but I'd like to see us fast track people who need to go back," he said.

Bryan said there is a misconception about where many immigrants originate.

"The focus is on Mexico," he said. "But we get people from across the board."

Davis agreed.

"In the school system, we have children from 22 different countries," Davis said. "That creates language barriers and cultural barriers."

He also said rules coming from Washington, D.C. about how those children from various countries and cultures should be educated amounts to unfunded mandates that put an additional strain on already struggling school systems.

Black asked if those children are illegal immigrants.

"We're not allowed to ask," Davis replied. "We have to provide approximately 20 English as a Second Language teachers for these students. It's a funding issue for us."

Ashe said when the federal government moved the immigration office from Nashville to Atlanta, that left Memphis as the only local immigration judge who could rule on such issues - and Memphis is a long way from Wilson County.

Bryan agreed. He said the process of identifying illegal immigrants who run afoul of the justice system is a burden, especially considering many use fake names and Social Security numbers when booked.

"While we're waiting to see if they are illegal immigrants, they are sitting in jail costing the taxpayers," he said.

"How long do we sit on them while determining who they are and where they belong?"
Caldwell said from a medical perspectiv,e immigration laws are just as confusing as they are for law enforcement.

"With the [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] laws, we can't share information," he said, adding he had experience dealing with immigration issues at his last post in Texas - issues such as one Social Security number being used by multiple people. "We had the same patient listed as having prostrate surgery and a C-section."

Caldwell said he was married to a Brazilian woman who went through the proper channels to become a legal immigrant, so he understands what a lengthly and involved process it takes to immigrate legally to the U.S. He said the real burden on the medical system is many immigrants wait until their condition is acute, which necessitates them to use the emergency room with many ending up in intensive care.

"We're left holding the bag," he said.

Smith said illegal immigration doesn't affect the banking industry as much, but he has noticed a general attitude, reflecting people feel immigrants are getting things they haven't earned for free.

"If you can address it in any manner, we'll be better off," he said, adding people wonder with any immigration legislation "is anything really going to happen?"

Craighead said Lebanon police and schools deal with illegal immigrants, but his personal experience as a contractor gave him a different perspective.

"When unemployment was low, we couldn't find anyone to do the work," he said, adding his company always went through the system to verify workers were legal, but many were using duplicated identification forcing his company to let them go or face a stiff fine.

Denney said in the world of agriculture, there are two different groups - cattle farmers and crop farmers and their views on illegal immigrants vary widely.

"Cattle folks say, 'send them all back,'" he said. "Farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, crops that are very labor intensive, say if it weren't for immigrant labor then they couldn't operate at all."

He also said migrant farm workers are almost impossible to keep track of as they move around the country as different crops come into season. He thinks guest worker programs are effective. Davis said the school system also experiences fluctuations when migrant workers' children move in and out of the school system as they follow their parents.

"Whatever happens, people have to be documented some way" Denney said. "You've got to know what you've got before you can do anything."

Black said she had two ideas that must be the starting point for immigration reform. The first is to secure U.S. borders.

"It makes no sense to bail water from the boat until you plug the hole," she said.

Second, she said doing nothing is "de facto amnesty." Black said the idea is to welcome immigrants who have something to contribute to the nation, while blocking those who bring crime and trouble.

Ashe said he strongly supports any immigrant being granted citizenship if they are serving in the military, especially those who are in combat.

"I'd like to see that fast tracked," he said.

Black said any reform must be based on two principles - fairness and legality.

"We are willing to help people; we're a compassionate people," she said. "These are tough issues, and this is a tough bill."

She said the main thing is to be able to get a reading on what her constituents feel.

"I want to be able to say I've been in the community, so I can weigh in with what I'm hearing from you," she said. "It's helpful to me to know I'm headed in the right direction."

 

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