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ICE denies social media reports that it is ‘terrorizing’ Charlotte’s east side

dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is again denying social media reports that it has ramped up operations in east Charlotte, including suggestions it arrested dozens of undocumented Charlotte immigrants in the past week.

Among those reports is a widely circulated Facebook post that says 57 people have been picked up and are being held at a York County, S.C., facility for deportation.

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE’s southern region, noted the York County holding site is the only ICE facility for North Carolina, and that people held there have been arrested across the entire state, not just in Charlotte. It also holds undocumented immigrants arrested in South Carolina towns such as Rock Hill and Fort Mill.

Cox suggested the social media post of “raids” and “police roadblocks” have surfaced because “everyone's attention is focused on this issue recently.”

“ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” he said. “Our officers are out conducting enforcement on a daily basis, so suggestions that this is something new are not accurate. … ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy. “

A spokesman for the York County Sheriff’s Office declined Thursday to say how many ICE detainees there are from Charlotte and referred all questions to ICE.

Cox said a “snapshot” of Charlotte arrests from the past week was not immediately available, but would be coming in days.

Social media reports began surfacing over the weekend of checkpoints at six intersections in the city, which Cox has also denied.

The reports appeared to broaden Thursday morning to include rumors spread via Twitter that ICE had conducted a “raid” at Berryhill School to make immigration arrests.

Cox disputed the rumor and noted ICE policy prohibits conducting enforcement activity at “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals, churches and public demonstrations.

A spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said the system had no information about any students or parents being picked up by ICE agents Thursday. Berryhill Principal Cara Heath sent a message to families saying the same: “You may have heard rumors of immigration officers at our school today. I want to assure you that no such activity has occurred at our school.”

As for reports that as many as 57 people were being held in York County, Cox said anyone held there has “been identified as being unlawfully present in the United States and meet the enforcement priorities of this agency, which focus on criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

Fear and uncertainty have been rising by the hour among members of Charlotte’s Latino community this week. With each new report of an ICE arrest, many wondered on social media and local radio shows whether they were starting to see their greatest fear realized: mass roundups of undocumented immigrants.

As one of the community’s Spanish-language newspapers, Que Pasa Mi Gente, worked to report the names and circumstances surrounding the arrests, some readers doubted the truth of ICE’s claim that only criminals were being rounded up.

“They come looking for one person and they take everyone who is in that place,” wrote one commenter on Facebook in response to a Que Pasa Mi Gente article.

Immigration attorneys and advocates took to radio shows and Facebook to calm the community.

Charlotte immigration attorney Stefan LaTorre advised listeners Wednesday morning on the La Raza (106.1 FM) radio show “Los Hijos de la Mañana” to remain calm but to always carry identification, and to not drive without a license or drive drunk.

“It’s never a good time to commit a crime, but it’s definitely not a good time now,” LaTorre said in Spanish.

Immigrants without criminal records aren’t likely to be deported, LaTorre said. And he advised people that they don’t need to let police into their homes without a warrant, but that hiding people the police are searching for isn’t OK.

“It’s a scary time for people, to be sure,” LaTorre said. “But show your ID and you should be OK.”

Charlotte immigration attorney Tin Nguyen is among those who have been critical of ICE and questioned if the arrests are being conducted fairly.

“It has created this climate of fear in the immigrant and refugee communities of Charlotte,” Nguyen said. “There is a feeling that it has become dangerous to walk outside your house and go to work, go to the store, or go anywhere. It’s a feeling of having a target on your back, based on your nationality or color.

“I’m hearing from Africans, Vietnamese and Hmong … pretty much everybody, and they are all wondering if their (immigration status) is okay.”

Among the concerns of advocates is that members of east Charlotte’s large immigrant population are being stopped and questioned by ICE agents because of skin color, rather than evidence-based proof that they are in the country illegally.

Nguyen and other immigrant advocates are pushing supporters to contact city officials and register complaints about the arrests.

Some social media posts claimed to have proof Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police are also part of ongoing ICE operations.

However, that would be contrary to a department practice that defers to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department to handle immigration-related arrests.

In a statement, the sheriff’s office said: “In reference to the inaccurate social media reports, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office does not and has not engaged in any type of immigration enforcement outside of our facility.”

In a recent interview, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerry Putney noted city police are not federal agents and “aren’t going to act like it.”

As for photos on Facebook that claim to show a CMPD officer participating in an immigration arrest, the department says the photo is actually of an officer “backing up a DMV officer on a routine traffic stop.”

Unsubstantiated rumors of ICE raids and checkpoints have also spread in other parts of the country, including California, Florida and Texas.

Correspondent Cristina Bolling contributed.

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