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Oakwood looks to limit illegal immigration
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Monday night’s Oakwood City Council meeting began looking more like a presidential debate when a hot button issue was raised — illegal immigration.

Oakwood City Councilmember Gary Anderson started a discussion on what he called the depleting effect illegal immigrants have upon Oakwood and Hall County resources.

The ensuing dialogue led to a motion directing Oakwood City Attorney Donnie Hunt and Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown to research ordinances discouraging illegal immigrants from living in Oakwood. Two councilmembers abstained from voting on the motion. Hunt said he will look at other municipalities’ ordinances that Oakwood could potentially adopt to resolve its infrastructure problems worsened by
illegal immigration.

"This is sort of becoming prevalent across the country, where lots of cities are just frustrated that the federal government is not doing their job," Hunt said. "Cities have tried different creative ways such as housing standards and forcing employers to hire legal residents or otherwise they revoke their business license, and those are the areas I’ll look into."

Census Bureau estimates from 2006 that were released in August showed that a quarter of Hall County’s population is Hispanic or Latino. And 2005 Census Bureau estimates show that a fifth of the county is foreign-born.

Although Anderson acknowledged that many Hispanics reside in Hall County legally, but believes that Oakwood should take a stand against the illegal immigrants who use schools, law enforcement, hospitals and the health department’s free services.

"It’s putting a strain on everything," he said. "Utilities are being strained to the max as far as water and sewer. ... At some point in time, this bubble’s going to burst if we don’t do something about it."

"Obviously the federal government isn’t going to do much about it, the state governments have their head in the sand, so it’s going to be left up to the local governments in my opinion to make these statements and get something accomplished," Anderson said.

Sam Evans was one of two councilmembers abstaining from the vote.

"We don’t support anybody who is breaking laws ... but I think it would be sending a bad message to some of the hardest working people that we have in our community in terms of the Hispanics," Evans said. "Do we mandate that no employer in our community employ illegal immigrants? Does it mandate that no landlord can rent property to illegal immigrants? But where do you draw the line? And how do you go out and enforce what you’re trying to do?"

Hunt said the federal government is the only governing authority that can arrest and deport illegal immigrants. When discussion turned to creating a city ordinance to prosecute illegal immigrants, Oakwood Police Chief Randall Moon told councilmembers he is powerless in that effort.

"We cannot arrest anybody, we can’t put teeth into an ordinance of that nature," Evans reiterated.

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic said that a pending partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would give greater enforcement in that area. The program would allow eight ICE-trained Hall County deputies to initiate the paperwork process for illegal immigrants discovered within the county jail system.

Already in place in North Carolina’s Cobb and Mecklenburg counties, section 287(g) of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act empowers local law officers in immigration enforcement. Mecklenburg includes Charlotte.

Hall County is among 66 other county sheriff’s departments nationwide on the waiting list for an ICE partnership, including Georgia’s Whitfield and Forsyth counties.

Cronic said he anticipates ICE school approval for the Hall County program in January, and for deputies to complete the program in February. The ICE equipment would provide with the database necessary to determine the immigration status of all individuals arrested in Hall County, regardless of the offense.

"This will enable us to be able to actually initiate the paperwork and processing of individuals that are in violation of immigration laws and commit crimes while they’re here," Cronic said. "At that point we’ll ... refer to the ICE folks and they’ll either pick them up in 72 hours or they’ll start paying us for the time that they’re here while they await due process hearings through immigration."

Upon federal approval of the program, Cronic said that illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in Hall County could end up being deported after serving their sentences. Deportations would be based on findings made by the ICE bureau in Atlanta.

Cronic said the Sheriff’s Department will conduct immigration status checks while booking violators who are arrested through routine patrols. For the past decade, the sheriff said that the department has consistently evaluated the immigration status of those arrested and brought into the county jail. With the ICE equipment, deputies could more accurately identify each individual and their immigration status.

"For every individual that’s (at the jail) through legal means, we probably have at least one or probably more that’s here through illegal immigration. It’s about half," he said.

Cronic added that ICE deputies will not aim to raid retail establishments or residences.

"This is not anything that’s anti-immigrant, it’s not even anti-illegal immigrant, it’s anti-illegal immigrant that continues to break the law while they’re here, and that’s the only group that it’s aimed at," he said.

According to Cronic, 90 percent of the volume of illegal drugs brought into the area is smuggled across the Mexican border by illegal immigrants. And roughly 80 percent of Hall County’s gangs are Mexican street gangs, although he said immigration status is often difficult to determine.

The sheriff added that during a span of several years, he has seen a rise in the number of armed robberies committed by illegal immigrants, as well as a disproportionate share of Hall County homicides committed by illegal immigrants.

"And in most of these cases," he added, "illegal aliens have also been the victims."

Staff reports from the Charlotte Observer indicate the 287(g) program Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph implemented in May 2006 has had positive results. He has targeted nearly 3,000 inmates for deportation since the program’s inception. In fact, Pendergraph was the first sheriff east of California to implement the program, and joined the Homeland Security Agency on Dec. 3 as its first executive director of state and local coordination.

"With all my heart, I wish the federal government would do the job that they’re supposed to be doing, and that’s why I think you’re seeing local jurisdictions getting involved with (immigration)," Cronic said. "But in absence of that, and given the fact that we’re seeing so much of it in our quality of life issues with drugs, violent crimes or gangs, someone has to step up and do something."

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