CARY — Facing criticism within her own party, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers on Wednesday doubled down on her push to give legal status to millions of immigrants living illegally in the country.
The Dunn Republican is making immigration overhaul a top priority even as it becomes a flashpoint in her re-election campaign and the prospect of a deal appears to fade on Capitol Hill.
“If I can do anything in Washington, I’d like to solve this problem,” the second-term lawmaker told a forum of immigration advocates in Cary.
Ellmers offered a broad outline of a plan that puts the emphasis foremost on securing the nation’s borders, while also including legal status for the roughly 11 million people living in the United States illegally.
It is not the equivalent of citizenship, Ellmers cautioned, but a lesser status that she did not define. To gain legal status, she said, immigrants would have to verify their identity, pay a penalty and admit wrongdoing.
“We have to put forward a process where they can achieve that goal,” she said. “I don’t know what that is going to look like.”
The notion of self-deportation is not workable, she asserted.
“It is not practical, it is not common sense, to assume that 11 or 12 … million people are simply going to pick up and leave our country,” Ellmers said. “It is not possible because they have built their lives here, they have built their families here.”
Ellmers emerged as a prominent voice on immigration in January, joining House Republican leaders in advocating for a solution to an issue that has vexed lawmakers in Washington and Raleigh. But after getting heat, Ellmers went largely silent. Her remarks at the forum were her most substantive comments on the issue to date.
Her position on immigration has provided plenty of fodder for her Republican primary opponent, Frank Roche, who is putting immigration at the center of his campaign. If elected, the radio talk show host is pledging to block “comprehensive immigration reform and amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
Ellmers asserted that legal status does not amount to amnesty, saying that Roche was “distorting” her position.
Doing nothing, Ellmers said, is “actually de facto amnesty.”
In her remarks, Ellmers posed as many questions as she answered, and she offered a word of caution at the start. “I can’t guarantee a piece of legislation is going to come out this year, but we are starting this discussion,” she said.
The overhaul-minded business and community leaders at the forum urged Ellmers to take action, arguing that it is key to the state’s economic recovery.
Kurt Bland, who owns a landscape company, said he depends on immigrant workers to fill open positions that local workers often won’t take. “It’s killing us not to have dependable guest worker visas available to us,” he said, detailing how fewer workers hurt his company’s revenues.
‘A good first step’
But others who attended the event said Ellmers’ desire to grant legal status to immigrants instead of citizenship is a short-sighted political solution.
“It’s a good first step,” said John Herrera, the senior vice president for Latino affairs at Self Help, a Durham nonprofit. “There might be some folks that it works for them.
“But for others,” he continued, “it’s really hard to think that you cannot establish a life in this country and become an American. We want to be citizens.”