By Gary Nelson
Diane Black, 6th District Congressman, held an immigration roundtable discussion last week in Crossville in order to hear concerns from a variety of area leaders in key areas of law enforcement, education and business and report those to colleagues in Washington D.C.
"When the immigration issue came up I wanted to hear from you all and take my info back with me so you will have a voice in Washington," Black said.
Black met with Cumberland County Mayor Kenneth Carey Jr.; Crossville Mayor J.H. Graham III; Crossville Police Chief David Beaty; Cumberland County Sheriff Butch Burgess; Casey Cox, investigator; Cumberland County Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle; Sarah Hazleton of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce; Kendra Howard from Roane State Community College; and Larry and Karen Lane of Mountain Vegetable Packers.
Black asked how immigration and illegal alien residents affected the various areas in the community.
"Our biggest problem is with traffic-related offenses, DUI's with repeat offenses and drug-related offenses," said Cumberland County Sheriff's Investigator Casey Cox.
Black asked about the drug-related offenses.
"It's mainly with selling," Cox said.
"Is ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) involved?" Black asked.
"Yes, but there is a delay," Cox said.
Burgess said sometimes it takes up to three business days for them to find out if the suspect is wanted for a violent crime or not or if they will come to pick up the suspect.
"In the mean time we have to hold them. It's putting financial pressure on the county," Burgess said.
Burgess said the drug activity in the area is increasing tremendously because Cumberland County is in the middle of Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga, with a large drug hub being Atlanta, GA.
"If we had some kind of a data base to access, it would help greatly. We don't have anything right now because it's federal and there's no access," Burgess said.
"You make a good point," Black said. "You could be dealing with some dangerous people."
Beaty said, "If we could get ICE to respond within 30 minutes instead of a few days and let us know if they're going to pick them up. It would help."
"If it's a serious crime, we have to keep them. We can't release them, but if there was a data base we had access to, we could see what we're dealing with," Burgess said.
In the education area, Black heard some of the big issues affecting Cumberland County.
"We have no idea knowing who's illegal and who's not because they don't have to report it and we can't ask them. There's no funding available for what we need," said VanWinkle.
She said Cumberland County had roughly 120-126 students who needed help with an ESL teacher in the school system.
"Right now we have four teachers for all of them and we get no funding to pay for these," VanWinkle said. "The cost is roughly $50,000 for salary and benefits for just one."
VanWinkle said it was unfair because the county doesn't have the personnel required to handle the situation and the county doesn't have the funds.
"Most of those students speak little or no English and the county is being held accountable for them to perform at the same level as all the other students. It's very difficult. There's a gap between the Hispanic versus the regular English-speaking students. Some of those students have only had a few months of teaching," VanWinkle said.
VanWinkle also said those low scores bring the average of the county down and the county is held accountable as a part of the requirements for the Race To The Top funds it received.
"I'd like to get with you about this in the future so we can talk about this more. These are very good points that haven't been brought up before," Black said.
In business, Hazleton said many small businesses were concerned with the costs of funding and accommodating the illegal aliens coming into the country and how it was going to effect the taxes they would have to pay.
Black asked if businesses were using the H-2A program.
The H-2A guest worker program was passed in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act and is one of the primary legal ways for employers to hire seasonal agriculture workers.
Karen Lane said they did not use it because it was too expensive to use and extremely complicated.
"They are not able to use it because of the many requirements of the program, it would price them out of business," said Carey.
"I am hearing a lot of this same thing in all of these meetings," Black said.
Larry Lane said the immigrants who work for them are doing the jobs a lot of the local people don't want to do and it is seasonal work.
"They are very hard workers and they come to work when they are needed," Lane said.
Black said congress needed to look at the current system and look at border patrol.
"I don't have the answers to those at this point," Black said.
She is planning a trip with a colleague to see how the border patrol works and is hoping the government will come up with a plan for consistently securing the borders.
Black said she appreciated everyone meeting with her and giving her feedback on what was happening in her district.
Black said she was taking the information back with her to the government and committees.
Graham said he appreciated Black gathering the input of the community.
"There are lots of issues and we don't have the manpower to put an officer on every corner and patrol all of this," Graham said.
He also said he wished the government would consider stiffer penalties to businesses that were using illegal immigrants intentionally.
Black said the country needed to develop and have a good worker/visa program.
VanWinkle said, "We need to figure out how to get the people in this country to work the jobs that are here."
Black said they needed to cut unemployment benefits down from 99 weeks to 26 weeks the way it was before the federal government took it over.
"Nothing makes you want to go out and go to work more than being hungry and not having a roof over your head," Black said.
Black thanked all who attended for their input and said she would share the information with congress.