Immigration officers made at least two arrests Wednesday inside the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, witnesses say, resuming a controversial practice despite a shutdown of the federal government that has closed the city’s immigration court.
The arrests took place just over a month after the county’s new sheriff, Garry McFadden, ended his office’s participation in the 287(g) program in which deputies assisted federal agents in making immigration arrests.
In response to McFadden’s 2018 campaign pledge to end the county’s participation, a spokesman for the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Enforcement, or ICE, last May threatened a broader crackdown on undocumented immigrants in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Monday’s arrests are believed to be the first in the courthouse since McFadden took office. McFadden could not be immediately reached for comment.
Charlotte attorney Bob Trobich told the Observer that ICE agents arrested his client, Leonardo Hernandez, as he entered the courthouse Wednesday morning. Hernandez was scheduled to appear at a hearing facing misdemeanor charges of assault on a female and second-degree kidnapping, court records show.
Trobich, who didn’t learn until later of Hernandez’s arrest, said he saw two ICE agents in jeans and hooded sweatshirts approach a Latino couple outside a first-floor courtroom. Trobich said the officers asked for the man’s identity, then told him he was under arrest.
“They grabbed him by the wrists and started pulling out handcuffs. The man is semi-struggling. People are coming over to find out what’s going on,” Trobich said. “They never produced badges. They never produced paperwork. All they kept saying was ‘We’re ICE. We’re ICE. Don’t resist.’”
Trobich said the struggle went on for 10 minutes in the midst of the crowd of people who typically gather outside the first-floor courtrooms before the man “was forcibly escorted out... To do that with all those people around struck me as extremely risky and heavy-handed,” Trobich said.
Another attorney who witnessed the arrest, Assistant Public Defender Rex Marvel, called the ICE actions “an affront to justice.”
“Today I witnessed ICE agents seize a man walking into the courtroom with his family,” Marvel tweeted. “This kind of brutish Federal overreach undermines our system of justice. Defendants, witnesses and victims of crimes are now afraid to come to court.”
The arrests prompted a protest rally to be scheduled outside the courthouse Wednesday night.
In July, ICE agents arrested a Charlotte immigrant mother and her 16-year-old son after she showed up for a court hearing involving a domestic violence case, the Charlotte Observer reported at the time.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox could not be reached for comment. A recording on his phone said he had been idled since Christmas by the federal shutdown. The shutdown has also closed Charlotte’s immigration court, where those arrested Wednesday are likely to appear.
José Hernández-Paris, director of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition, said he believes the arrests are part of an ICE strategy to get undocumented immigrants to leave the country out of fear of arrest at any time.
“Part of their strategy is to intimidate the community and to send a message that there’s no sacred or safe space in which they will not arrest people,” Hernández-Paris said.
“And so it worries me that they’ll start doing again what they’ve done in the past … detaining students at the bus stop or sitting around an apartment complex where they know there’s a lot of Latinos and just parking there for two or three days.”
Stefania Arteaga, leader of the immigrant advocacy group Comunidad Colectiva and a representative of the ACLU of N.C., said she sees Wednesday’s arrests as “definitely retaliatory behavior” for McFadden’s ending of 287(g).
She said the outcry over Wednesday’s arrests will be as strong as it was in July following that courthouse arrest. Comunidad Colectiva organized a protest Wednesday night on the courthouse steps.
“Not only do we want to hold ICE accountable, but to let them know that we’re not OK with it and that we have expectations (for court administrators) to take the necessary steps to make sure that ICE does not continue these actions in our area within the court.”
A spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg County Courthouse said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Bob Bell and Chief District Judge Regan Miller had no comment.
In July, Cox said ICE officers “do not troll courthouses” for undocumented immigrants. Nor does the agency treat courthouses as “sensitive” locations, a designation reserved for schools, hospitals and churches, he said.
Cox also told WFAE in May that then candidate McFadden’s promised elimination of the 287(g) program could lead to a greater ICE enforcement footprint in Mecklenburg County.
“The bottom line is, if we’re not able to take these persons into custody in the jail, we have no other choice but to expand ICE resources to go out into the community and look for them and find them ourselves,” Cox said.
“And in doing that, it significantly increases the likelihood that we may come across other unlawfully present persons — who weren’t even on our radar — and those persons could be taken into custody as well.”