The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office has placed more than 5,000 illegal immigrants on the path to deportation, Sheriff Chipp Bailey said Thursday.
Bailey gave an update on the controversial program that allows his deputies to place jailed illegal immigrants into removal proceedings, known as 287(g), during an immigration forum at Central Piedmont Community College.
Panel members discussed current federal immigration policy as well as the impact immigrants have on Charlotte-area economic, legal, business and medical communities. Questions from the audience, largely sympathetic to the immigrant community, focused mostly on law enforcement and the sheriff's program.
The forum panel included Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; Steve Appold, assistant professor at the Kenan Flagler School of Business at UNC Chapel Hill; and Dr. Honnie Spencer, medical director of the Cabarrus Community Health Centers. Ed Williams, who recently retired as editor of the Observer's editorial department, moderated.
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The arrested foreign nationals represented more than 70 countries. Bailey said about 16.5 percent of the jail population is Hispanic. Most are from Mexico.
Among the 5,119 placed in removal proceedings since the program began in April 2006, 1,198 were arrested on DWI charges and 321 had been previously deported and had come back illegally.
The program has received national praise for demonstrating how local law enforcement and federal agents can work together. The program was initiated by former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph and has since been adopted by Gaston County and other sheriff's departments in the state.
But the sheriff defended the program as members of the audience questioned whether the program unfairly targets nonviolent offenders.
“Whether it's a violent offense or not is not relevant,” he said.
Many of those arrested were brought into the jail on misdemeanors or traffic violations, Bailey said, without giving specifics. He said he was obligated to report illegal immigrants to immigration authorities.
Bailey said he's been wrongly blamed for an immigration raid at a local Olive Garden restaurant. He said he's been wrongly accused of searching out illegal immigrants and arresting them.
He said he understood the impact on families and children of illegal immigrants who are deported. But he said it was his duty to uphold local, state and federal laws.
“We don't go out into the community looking for the undocumented,” he said. “…The only way someone will come in contact with 287(g) is if they're arrested.”