In one of first forays into electoral politics, a civil liberties group is spending $175,000 in Mecklenburg County's sheriff race with ads accusing incumbent Irwin Carmichael of working with "Trump's deportation force."
The American Civil Liberties Union, a non-partisan group, is targeting Carmichael's 287(g) program ahead of Tuesday's Democratic primary.
The program partners sheriff deputies with federal immigration officials to identify undocumented immigrants charged with crimes and process them for possible deportation.
A new report shows those held under the program last year included murderers, other felons and 111 people charged with DWI. There were also less serious offenses like traffic violations and, in one case, possessing undersized fish.
Carmichael faces fellow Democrats Antoine Ensley and Garry McFadden, who both say they would end the program. With no Republican running, Tuesday's winner is virtually guaranteed a four-year term.
In addition to 287(g), the ACLU ad also takes aim at the practice by which teenaged inmates can end up in isolation if they exhibit disruptive behavior toward a jail staff or fellow inmates.
"Our current sheriff, Irwin Carmichael, has kept teenagers locked in solitary confinement," a narrator says. "The NAACP calls it torture.... That's not all. Sheriff Carmichael works with Trump's deportation force. Detaining people for deportation. Tearing families apart."
Carmichael disputes the characterizations.
He said inmates are kept in what he calls a Disciplinary Detention Unit only if they've threatened guards or other inmates. They're still provided mental health, education and other services, he said.
Rabbi Judy Schindler, a member of group that protested conditions at the jail Thursday, also criticized the sheriff's partnership in federal immigration enforcement.
She says 287(g) is also making the community less safe because immigrant victims of crime no longer contact police out of fear of being swept into the deportation pipeline, she said.
"Anyone who is undocumented is subject to detention and deportation," she said. "Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are being deported. Tearing families apart is not an American value."
Carmichael said 287(g) has been around for 12 years, three sheriffs and three presidents, including Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama.
"Nothing has changed with this program in 12 years, so I don’t get where they're coming from," Carmichael said.
Mecklenburg is one of six North Carolina counties that participate in the program along with Gaston, Cabarrus, Henderson, Nash and Wake counties. Only Texas has more law enforcement agencies in the program.
Carmichael says access to the federal database can help identify inmates who might have a record in their home country. "The whole purpose," he has said, "is safety and security."
Supporters of the program say people are in it for a reason: they broke the law. Spokesman Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American ImmigrationReform, which opposes illegal immigration, has said, "All you have to do is be in violation of federal immigration laws."
According to the sheriff's office, there were 455 inmates identified through the program and held for ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Of those, 158 (35 percent) faced felony charges, including murder; 190 (42 percent) were arrested for misdemeanors, and 107 (23 percent) were picked up for traffic violations.
Felony charges included murder, rape and drug trafficking. Among the misdemeanor cases, more than 40 percent of the individuals were charged with assault on a female. Almost three-quarters of the driving arrests involved driving under the influence charges. On the other hand, one man was charged with keeping five undersized fish.
Most of those detained and held are from Mexico and Latin America. It's not clear how many people were ultimately deported.
Carmichael acknowledged that some of the charges that bring people to jail are relatively minor. That's not the point, he said.
"We’ve got to know who they are, what about if they commit murder in another country?" he said. "We would never know that without that program."
McFadden, a former detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, has said the 287(g) program "destroys families" and hurts law enforcement.
Ensley, a former CMPD sergeant and small-town police chief who's now a human resources manager for the city of Charlotte, said he would end the program in order to protect families left behind. "Strong families make strong communities," he said at one forum.
Some critics agree.
"The reason we've always been opposed to the 287(g) program is that encourages racial profiling and the targeting of people on how they look," said Mike Meno, a spokesman for the left-leaning ACLU. "That's something that’s happened across North Carolina and across the country.”
Carmichael said his opponents "would like a sanctuary city," which he opposes.
"We're not doing anything but identifying who's in our community and who’s in our jail,” he said.
Carmichael tops fundraising
Carmichael is the race's top fundraiser. New reports show he raised $180,000 through the first quarter.
McFadden pulled in $66,600 and Ensley raised $11,500.