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In NC Senate Race, Immigration Becomes Wedge Issue For GOP

Republican Senator Thom Tillis, left, faces challenges from former state Senator Cal Cunningham, Mecklenburg Commissioner Trevor Fuller and state Senator Erica Smith.
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Republican Senator Thom Tillis, left, faces challenges from former state Senator Cal Cunningham, Mecklenburg Commissioner Trevor Fuller and state Senator Erica Smith.

Earlier this year, North Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis opposed President Trump’s plan to declare a national emergency to fund the border wall.  

"Here’s where I have a difference, a respectful difference of opinion with the president and the administration," Tillis said during a February speech in Congress. "It’s the emergency order, that under the emergency powers act, that he is using his authority to appropriate the remaining funds. First off, those funds will come from what we will call the mil-con budget. That’s military construction so right now we’re trying to find out what that means."

Conservatives in North Carolina were furious. Tillis then reversed himself on the declaration, and has wholeheartedly supported the president’s agenda on immigration.

For Tillis, that means talking about the border wall. Whether border crossings should be decriminalized. And so-called sanctuary cities, which Tillis says includes Charlotte. 

In a recent commercial, President Trump states that Tillis has recently introduced a bill "to hold sanctuary cities accountable" and called him a "warrior."

Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer says, for Tillis, "picking the fight is what he’s looking for in terms of ginning up the base. Because – even though he has cut his deal with Trump – he has to prove his credentials."

But it’s not just the Republicans who have been talking about immigration. It’s been a key part of the Democratic presidential debates.

This summer, Savannah Guthrie asked Democratic candidates to raise their hands if their health care plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants. 

That was from the Democratic debate in June. And all 10 candidates on stage raised their hand.

State Senator Erica Smith and attorney and former state Senator Cal Cunningham are the two leading Democrats in the race. They mostly oppose Tillis’s positions on immigration, and they both say he is grandstanding on the issue.

But they also differ with each other. Like the question about health care coverage for unauthorized immigrants.

Smith – who represents a rural northeastern North Carolina district, says those immigrants should be able to buy into government provided health coverage.

When asked about the insurance issue, Cunningham says he will release a plan later. He talked about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

"I support a comprehensive effort to modernize our immigration system," Cunningham says. "There’s ample pergence of views on how to best to reform immigration, and I intend to put forward a comprehensive plan later in this campaign. I think there are good bi-partisan efforts underway, and I think it’s really important to find bipartisan ways to reform immigration."

Another issue that’s been part of the presidential campaign: Should border crossings be decriminalized?

A number of Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed this idea, saying the Trump administration has used it as a pretext to separate families apprehended.

Smith said border crossings "should be decriminalized."

She adds that "we also should not threaten American citizens who provide water or food or some level of assistance to someone who's very much in trouble."

Cunningham disagrees.

"I think that’s the wrong direction," he said. "There needs to be a comprehensive effort to reform our immigration laws. But I don’t think it’s the right answer for us to decriminalize border crossings. "

The biggest issue, however, is local.

Should North Carolina sheriffs – including Mecklenburg’s Garry McFadden –  honor detainer requests from the federal government to keep unauthorized immigrants in jail – even after they have met their conditions for release?

Tillis and the Trump administration have blasted McFadden for refusing to comply with the detainers.

Cunningham says the federal government shouldn’t question local law enforcement.

"I trust the voters in Mecklenburg County to weigh in on exactly that," he said. "Here’s what I know. That law enforcement makes difficult decisions every day. And as a United States senator, it’s not my job to second guess, it’s my job to make sure they have the resources they need to keep their communities safe."

Smith, who is African American, took a stronger position. She says she supports McFadden, and pointed out that the sheriffs being criticized are minorities.

"And for me, there is an underlying tone of the majority not wanting to respect the will of the people," she said. "There were an unprecedented number of sheriffs elected in our urban centers who are minority sheriffs, and a large part of this attack on sanctuary cities is an attack on the will of the people. And to me, that is unconscionable."

Smith says the issue is also about money, and that local law enforcement should be reimbursed for the cost of holding people in jail while waiting for ICE.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Trevor Fuller is also running. Fuller – who has struggled to raise money – says he would consider decriminalize border crossings, and said he’s “not there yet” when asked about extending health coverage to people illegally in the country.

He says the effort to make sheriffs honor ICE detainer requests is “shameful.”