Mecklenburg Commissioner Bill James wants Charlotte to ask the Justice Department whether the city is complying with President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on enforcing immigration laws. The order targets “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with the federal government.
James worries that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department – whose policy two years ago was not to ask people about their immigration status – could jeopardize federal funds for the city and county.
Three other Republican officials also said they want to make sure Charlotte isn’t violating the recent order, which encourages the federal government to grant local police departments powers related “to the investigation, apprehension, or detention of aliens.”
“I am OK with the City taking their own risks but I am not OK with them placing the County at risk,” James, a Republican, said in an email.
The city of Charlotte believes it’s compliant, despite CMPD’s past policy of instructing its officers not to ask about people’s immigration status.
Charlotte’s two primary law enforcement agencies – CMPD and the Sheriff’s Office – have taken a different approach toward people in the country illegally.
Charlotte has never claimed to be a sanctuary city. Regardless, HB 318 imposed restrictions with which the city is complying.
Bob Hagemann, city attorney
In the past, CMPD has been hands-off toward undocumented residents. But the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, partners with the federal government through the 287(g) program to detain people in the country illegally.
By participating in 287(g), the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy group, places Mecklenburg in the most restrictive category toward undocumented immigrants.
Trump has threatened to withhold federal money from cities that don’t share information with the federal government about people in the country illegally. The most common example is when someone is arrested for a crime unrelated to immigration, and a local government does not work with the federal government to keep the suspect in jail until the person’s immigration status is checked.
“Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States,” Trump’s order states. “These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”
It isn’t crystal clear. Some people said we should declare ourselves a sanctuary city. But the one thing Charlotte doesn’t need is battle on another front after what we have been through.
Republican City Council member Ed Driggs
Jennifer Gordon, a professor at Fordham law school, said the order encourages municipalities to enter into agreements with the federal government to enforce immigration law, but it does not mandate they do so. In other words, local police officers are not required, as of now, to “check someone’s papers.”
Republican City Council member Ed Driggs agrees with James, and said the city should ask the federal government whether it’s complying with Trump’s order.
“We should clarify what a sanctuary city is,” he said. “The situation we have is the Sheriff’s department does have a 287(g) agreement with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but CMPD does not.”
Driggs said the city should avoid a fight with the federal government, especially after its ongoing fight with the state over House Bill 2.
“It isn’t crystal clear,” he said. “Some people said we should declare ourselves a sanctuary city. But the one thing Charlotte doesn’t need is battle on another front after what we have been through.”
It’s unclear whether federal authorities would be willing to review Charlotte’s practices.
Republican council member Kenny Smith and Republican Commissioner Jim Puckett also said they want to make sure Charlotte is OK with the order.
“We have to be compliant with federal law,” Smith said.
But both Driggs and Smith said they agreed with CMPD chief Kerr Putney’s argument that checking the immigration status of witnesses and people interviewed could hamper efforts to fight crime.
Trump’s order says that non-compliant cities would not receive federal funds, unless mandated by law. The city and county receive hundreds of millions dollars from the federal government, for things such as education, law enforcement and transit.
Two different approaches
In 2015, the City Council passed a civil rights resolution that said, among other things, that CMPD would not enforce immigration law. Unless a suspect was believed to be part of a violent gang or a terrorist, an officer would not ask about someone’s immigration status.
Under the resolution, if an officer learned or suspected that anyone was in the country illegally, CMPD would not act on that information. In explaining the resolution, CMPD said its job isn’t to enforce immigration law, just as its officers are not the Internal Revenue Service and don’t bust people for tax evasion.
CMPD said it wants to gain the trust of the community for help solving and preventing crime.
That led to some critics calling Charlotte a “sanctuary city.”
That resolution drew the ire of the General Assembly, which passed a law in 2015 that nullified what the Republican legislature said were “sanctuary city” ordinances – a clear reference to Charlotte.
The law said cities “cannot prohibit law enforcement from gathering, or direct law enforcement not to gather, information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any person.”
In response, CMPD removed language from its civil rights resolution and other written policies that discussed its police policy toward illegal immigrants.
An example of the old language could be found in CMPD’s citizens handbook from February 2016. It said, “Officers do not inquire about the immigration status of a victim or others they encounter unless the person has committed a serious crime or is being investigated for the commission of a serious crime.”
In July 2016, CMPD changed the handbook. The new language said that, “CMPD provides police services to everyone in this community regardless of their immigration status.”
The Observer asked CMPD how its officers handle people who may be in the country illegally.
The police department’s response was vague.
In a written statement, CMPD said, “as it relates to undocumented immigrants, CMPD’s practice and policies have not changed as a result of national events.”
The department’s policy against profiling people said officers should “treat people fairly while providing police services and not assume immigration status.”
The Observer requested clarification from the city about whether its officers ask about immigration status when they encounter someone they believe might be in the country illegally. The city referred questions back to CMPD’s initial statement.
“Charlotte has never claimed to be a sanctuary city,” said city attorney Bob Hagemann. “Regardless, (the legislature) imposed restrictions with which the city is complying.”
...There is certainly an argument to be made that CMPD is not currently sharing information with the feds, but whether or not that argument is successful remains to be seen or even discussed at the federal level.
Mecklenburg’s legislative affairs liaison, Jonathan Sink
Commissioner James asked Mecklenburg’s legislative affairs liaison, Jonathan Sink, whether CMPD was complying with the Trump administration order. Sink said in an email there is “some (but not much) concern” that CMPD’s policy could conflict with the order.
In an email to County Manager Dena Diorio, Sink said a senior CMPD official told him: “It was his opinion that the CMPD ‘does not go out of its way to share immigration-related information with the feds,’ ” Sink wrote.
“So there is certainly an argument to be made that CMPD is not currently sharing information with the feds, but whether or not that argument is successful remains to be seen or even discussed at the federal level.”
Sink added that the county’s participation in the 287(g) program would “add to our credit” as complying with the federal government.
City Council may discuss the executive order Monday.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts said in a tweet last Monday that “Charlotte will continue to be a welcoming and inclusive city of diverse talents and residents.”
In other cities, reaction from mayors has been mixed. Many have said they will not enforce federal immigration law, though Miami-Dade’s mayor recently said the county would begin working more closely with the federal government by detaining immigrants possibly in the country illegally longer in jail.
In Cincinnati, Mayor John Cranley said his city would be a “sanctuary city,” according to USA Today.
“We have put the whole world on notice that we intend to live up to the Statue of Liberty ideals,” Cranley said.
U.S. Rep Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, said the executive order is aimed at “brazen local officials who openly flaunt federal law.”
He said Sheriff Irwin Carmichael works with the federal government, and Pittenger said he’s confident CMPD “will appreciate President Trump’s focus on law and order.”
Status checked at jail
The Sheriff’s Office cooperation on immigration enforcement dates back a decade. That’s when the agency became the first law enforcement unit east of Phoenix to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s 287(g) program, in which all non-U.S. born people arrested are checked for being a “potentially removable alien.”
Four other N.C. counties have similar agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Wake, Cabarrus, Gaston and Henderson counties.
According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Mecklenburg is a county that “spends substantial local time and resources on civil immigration enforcement, whether under a 287(g) agreement or by contracting with ICE to detain immigrants, or both.”
That means that a CMPD officer may not ask about someone’s immigration status when they are investigating a crime. But as soon as that person is arrested, the jail will work with ICE to make sure that suspect is in the U.S. legally.