Federal officials arrested more than 100 undocumented immigrants in the Carolinas last week as deportation fears run high in Charlotte’s immigrant communities.
The arrests came in the wake of an executive order last month from President Donald Trump that appeared to expand the definition of criminal immigrants targeted for deportation to include those who entered the United States illegally – a misdemeanor.
Those arrested last week included 84 in North Carolina, 19 in South Carolina and 87 in Georgia. The arrests were part of a targeted operation aimed at “immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens,” a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement release states.
This wasn’t the first time ICE conducted a mass round-up of immigrants here illegally. In May 2012, a three-day operation netted 80 undocumented immigrants in Georgia and the Carolinas, all with previous criminal convictions. Thirty-two were captured in North Carolina.
According to ICE, last week’s operation caught:
▪ 127 people with prior criminal convictions in addition to their illegal immigration status.
▪ 29 who had been removed from the U.S. previously but later re-entered the country.
▪ 17 with outstanding final orders from a federal judge to leave the U.S.
ICE did not release specific charges or details about those arrested, though one Charlotte-area person had been convicted on three counts of taking indecent liberties with a child, the release states. That person had previously been removed to Mexico before re-crossing the border.
A Mexican national in Georgia was wanted in Mexico for homicide and attempted homicide, ICE reported. And an Atlanta-area Mexican national had previously pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution charges, a felony.
Agency officials said ICE does not conduct “sweeps, checkpoint or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”
On Monday, President Trump said at a news conference that he wanted to deport those undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.
“I said we will get the criminals out – the drug lords, the gang members – we're getting them out,” he said. “We are going to get the bad ones. The really bad ones, we’re getting them out and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
But despite such assurances, many immigrants in and around Charlotte whose only crime was crossing the border are scared enough that they’re changing their daily habits – especially if their routine involves driving and the chance of being stopped by law enforcement.
“People are terrified to go to work, to drop off their kids for schools, and to go to grocery stores,” said Charlotte immigration attorney Tin Thanh Nguyen.
Joanne Stratton Tate, who heads the Charlotte Bilingual School, said the school is feeling the effects of the growing fear in the immigrant community.
“Attendance drops when word of ‘stops’ and raids at a workplace circulates,” she said. “Some children are being dropped off and picked up by someone other than their parent – a sign that the parent is nervous about driving.”
Local immigration attorneys say they’re getting more calls from immigrants worried about their legal status. And several Charlotte businesses that serve immigrant customers say they’re closing early because their staff and customers fear raids or check-points.
And yet, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Ann Clark said Monday evening that she is “happy and relieved to report that we have not seen a significant change in (attendance) in the last two weeks in our schools with large percentages of Hispanic Latino students.”
While it’s still unclear whether undocumented immigrants without criminal records should worry, the same panic in the Charlotte area was evident around the country.
The New York Times reported that the Mexican government had even warned “the entire Mexican community” in the United States “to take precautions and to keep in touch with their nearest consulate,” after the high-profile deportation last week of Guadalupe García de Rayos, who had illegally emigrated at age 14.
An Arizona resident and the mother of two U.S.-born citizen, García de Rayos had been allowed to stay in the country for years – even after an old deportation order that came after she pleaded guilty to employment-related criminal impersonation, a Class 6 felony.
Trump ran on a campaign pledge to get tougher on immigrants here illegally. And his Jan. 25 executive order appears to broadly define who should be deported:
“We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” it says. “The purpose of this order is to direct executive departments and agencies to employ all lawful means to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.”
In Charlotte last week, amid rumors of raids and sweeps by ICE, groups speaking up for immigrants – including Action NC, the Latin American Coalition, and the NAACP – issued an ultimatum to city and county leaders: Take a public stand against the arrests on behalf of the community’s immigrant population or face a backlash at the polls.
About 30,000 Latinos in Mecklenburg County are qualified to vote, said Héctor Vaca of Action NC, and they will remember “who stood by them at election time.”
“The immigrant community is very angry,” he added. “They were told by (politicians) what was going to be done for them after elections, and the City Council is refusing to do anything. We don’t want workshops. We don’t want studies. We’re looking for commitment to take a stand.”
Staff writers Ann Doss Helms and Mark Price contributed