Cover Story: Breaking law to punish lawbreakers?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Controversial Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James wants to break the law to catch lawbreakers.

The immigration debate taking center stage at the Government Center.

If you're born in this country, you're an American citizen. Period.  First sentence - Section One -14th Amendment of the Constitution.

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States Are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

And you're guaranteed certain benefits - food, medicine, and welfare, if you need it.

But Republican Commissioner Bill James has a plan that would take those benefits away from the children of illegal immigrants who were born here.

The issue gets people fired up - some people agree with it. But the legality of James's idea there are some people say that dog just won't hunt.

That's because he doesn't have the votes on the Mecklenburg county commission to get the policy changed and he knows it.

And even if he were successful the county could be opening up itself to a lawsuit.

So what's really at play here?

Say illegal immigrants - getting welfare benefits and you hit the mother lode.  The phones on talk radio light up.

Yet it's going on in Mecklenburg county and across the U.S.

"We are depositing checks into bank accounts of illegal immigrants so they can give the money to their American born kids," says WBT-AM Talk show host Tara Servatius.

But benefits are something illegal immigrants' children - born here in the United States are entitled to as American citizens.

When their parents come in for welfare and food stamps for their kids-- federal and state rules prohibit DSS workers from asking the parents about their immigration status.

Mecklenburg county commissioner Republican Bill James wants Mecklenburg DSS to change its policy - in essence break the law to go after lawbreakers.

Democrats in the majority on county commission are opposed.  And further say it could get the county sued.

Knowing that - why is James pursuing it?

UNC Charlotte Political Scientist Dr. Eric Heberlig says it's politics plain and simple.  "All he has to say is the Democrats voted to give welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. And welfare is unpopular. Illegal immigrants are unpopular. So you have a very powerful combination," he says.

You only have to look at the calendar to figure out what's going on.  Important county, state and federal elections are four weeks from now.  And just the discussion has people fired up.

"If people vote for this they need to clean house," says one caller on talk radio.  Another said, "The hair on the back of my neck is standing up right now."

The total cost of welfare, food stamps and Medicaid for suspected illegal immigrants in Mecklenburg county in July was 2-point-7 million dollars.  About 3 and a half percent of the 77 million dollars in total payments.  Not all of it county money.

Doesn't matter, say the experts, James can score points.

"This was one of Jesse Helms' favorite tactics when he was in the Senate. He'd make the Senate vote over and over again on school prayer amendments homosexuality amendments that had no chance of passing.. but they could use for campaign advertising," said Heberlig.

In the proposal James made Tuesday night he didn't say he wants to quit benefits for children of illegal immigrants.

He says he wants to make sure those in this country illegally receiving welfare benefits are not a national security threat.

DSS is prohibited from telling federal and state immigration officials unless it knows of a formal order of deportation.

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