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Undocumented immigrants can now serve on Charlotte city boards. Here’s why.


The contentious national immigration debate pushed its way into Charlotte politics Monday night, as City Council voted to loosen the requirements for advisory boards and committees and allow people who aren’t registered voters to serve.

That would also potentially open up the 35 boards and commissions — which advise City Council on everything from zoning to transit to public art — to undocumented immigrants, as board members who opposed the change pointed out.

It was the second time in one meeting that immigration policy came up, as City Council members also debated whether the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department should be conducting DWI checkpoints in immigrant communities at a time of stepped-up ICE enforcement raids.

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“I don’t like when national platforms are played out in our community,” said council member James Mitchell. “If you’re going to take that narrative on a federal level, run for those positions.”

Immigration and the debate over a border wall with Mexico are already emerging as central issues in the 2020 presidential election, even though it’s still more than 20 months away. Also Monday, President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in El Paso, Tex., trying to build support to “finish the wall,” while likely Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke held a counter-rally in the same city.

City Council approved the change to the requirements for boards and commissions in an 8-2 vote, with Republicans Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari voting no.

City Council also voted unanimously to accept a grant allowing CMPD to continue DWI checkpoints, after a police official assured members that the checkpoints are planned based on traffic safety data and not in coordination with ICE.

But the often-sharp debates, which went on for over an hour, showed how a major national issue continues to play out in Charlotte.

Last year, new Mecklenburg County Sheriff Gary McFadden discontinued the county’s participation in the 287(g) program, in which arrestees were screened for immigration violations and turned over to ICE if that agency requested. This year, ICE stepped up raids and checkpoints, which officials said would be the “new normal” in response to the county pulling out of 287(g).

Adrienne Martinez, who serves on the city’s Community Relations Committee, said that removing the requirement that board members be registered voters wasn’t just intended to allow undocumented immigrants to serve on local commissions.

It would also allow Mecklenburg residents who aren’t registered to vote for any reason to serve.

That could include felons who have completed their prison sentences but not received the right to vote, green card holders and people who have had difficulty registering to vote or simply choose not to.

“This is not an effort solely to offer opportunities for individuals who do not have U.S. citizenship,” she told council members. “Voter suppression is a reality in North Carolina, and Charlotte is not immune.”

Driggs said he’s fine with allowing most people who aren’t registered to vote to serve on local boards.

“I thought the point was people shouldn’t have to register to vote to serve on boards and commissions, and I’m absolutely fine with that,” said Driggs, whose wife is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the U.K. But he said the city should still require they be legal residents.

“Undocumented immigrants are in fact in current violation of federal law,” said Driggs. “We should not just brush that aside as a minor thing... National security requires that we have some control over who is here.”

He said that allowing immigrants without legal U.S. status to serve on local boards, “effectively sends out an invitation to others to circumvent immigration laws and just make their way to Charlotte.”

‘The world we exist in’

Mayor Vi Lyles said that before 2009, the city only required people who served on boards to be Mecklenburg residents. She also said the city already has difficulty finding several hundred volunteers to serve on its dozens of advisory boards.

“The world didn’t fall apart. We didn’t have a bunch of people running in and saying, ‘Let me hurry up and serve on something,’ ” she said. “They’re not in charge of laws... Out of our 30-plus boards, with five to 10 people on them, we have a tough time finding people to come in willing to do this.”

Council member Greg Phipps questioned whether the City Clerk would be able to verify all board members’ immigration status. Only members of sensitive boards, such as the Citizens Review Board that oversees some police complaints, are subject to background checks.

Bokhari warned of “unintended consequences” when the city and county government make changes like letting undocumented people on boards, or pulling out of 287(g).

“We have to recognize the world we exist in,” he said. “Our vote doesn’t make ICE go away. Our vote doesn’t make the General Assembly, controlled by Republicans, go away.”

More concerns

There was a tense exchange between Mitchell and Driggs at one point.

“We’re not comparing this to 287(g) or any other thing. This is about people in Charlotte wanting to serve,” said Mitchell. He accused Driggs of playing out the “national narrative,” and suggested people interested in that debate should run for national office instead of City Council.

Driggs said he knows the national immigration system is “a mess,” and that he didn’t want the issue to be painted as an “ugly Republican vs. Democrat confrontation.”

“I don’t mean for this to be ugly,” he said. “I think we should all coexist in peace... Don’t you go there and start making this about national ugliness.”

Mitchell responded that the “truth hurts.”

Council member Braxton Winston said he hopes City Council will pay attention to immigrants’ concerns.

“We have to listen and be reactive,” he said. “This continues to erode the trust in our immigrant communities.”

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