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Next sheriff plans to end controversial immigration program. Will it make a difference?

A controversial jail immigration program is likely to end after Mecklenburg County's next sheriff is sworn in at the end of this year.

At his victory party Tuesday night, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg detective Garry McFadden said the program, which has sent thousands of people into deportation proceedings since 2006, was "going to be history in Charlotte-Mecklenburg," according to local public radio station WFAE. McFadden won the Democratic primary, and no Republicans are running in the general election.

But the election leads to new questions.

First of all, can McFadden end the county's involvement with 287(g) all by himself? Yes, according to an agreement between the sheriff's office and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

McFadden would need to give written notice to ICE's Atlanta field office, and termination would take effect as soon as ICE received that notice, according to the agreement.

But McFadden's potential influence on immigration enforcement in Mecklenburg County is broader than 287(g). Like anyone living in Charlotte, undocumented people will still be arrested after the program ends, and ICE could potentially learn about their arrests through a shared fingerprint system, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.

McFadden has a decision to make: How much access should he give to ICE?

If he chooses to end 287(g), Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office employees would stop performing immigration-enforcement duties inside the county's jail.

But McFadden could continue to give ICE officials access to the jail. He could also bar them altogether — or something in between.

McFadden was unavailable Wednesday afternoon because he was going on vacation, according to his campaign manager.

Activists want McFadden to disregard ICE detainers.

"We need to make sure Mecklenburg County no longer collaborates with ICE," said Mayra Arteaga of Comunidad Colectiva, a local group that campaigned against 287(g).

If that happens, though, ICE officers could make more arrests out in the community, Cox said, which could be dangerous for everyone involved.

"(The end of the 287(g) program) does not mean that immigration enforcement will not happen," Cox said.

Supporters of the program say it brought natural consequences to people violating immigration law.

“We seem to have developed this idea that in order to get deported from the United States you have to have committed some serious crime,” spokesman Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes illegal immigration, said before the sheriff's election. “All you have to do is be in violation of federal immigration laws.”

When ICE comes to arrest someone, agents won't turn a blind eye to undocumented people who may be accompanying the person they're seeking, Cox said. That could lead to even more arrests.

But ICE already makes arrests out in the community — every day, Cox said.

Because ICE is already active in the county, McFadden's election is still encouraging to activists.

"The threat is always there," Arteaga said.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester

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