The front of Los Reyes 2, a strip-mall grocery in east Charlotte, is covered in calling cards and phone chargers and keychains in the shape of sombreros and flags from Latin America. Lately, there’s also been a tall stack of blue and white pamphlets sitting on the counter.
“¿Se han dado cuenta? Pueden llamar a la policía sin problema,” owner Jackie Roque told two customers earlier this month, handing them each a pamphlet as they walked inside the store. “Have you heard? You can call the police, no problem.”
That flier, written in Spanish, is being distributed at Latino businesses around the city by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. It’s part of CMPD’s efforts to distance itself from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has stepped up its enforcement locally in recent months.
But police are still struggling to build trust among the city’s immigrants, legal or not, at a time when many are increasingly terrified — and misinformed — about what could happen if they interact with law enforcement.
“People feel that ICE and police are the same thing,” said Lt. Brad Koch, a CMPD spokesperson. “So we feel it’s important that we put it down on paper: We’re not going to deport you. We want you to call us.”
After the county sheriff’s department ended its 287(g) agreement with ICE last year, it’s an important distinction to make. Until November, the partnership required sheriff’s deputies to check the legal status of inmates brought to county jail, putting a steady stream of unlawful immigrants in detention and giving many others a reason to avoid police.
But following ICE’s response to the sheriff — a retaliatory sweep of arrests in February — immigration advocates say there’s much more that CMPD should be doing to ease nerves in places like east Charlotte. At public and private meetings, they have called on police to cease traffic checkpoints, which can be confused with ICE activity, and put out statements acknowledging when immigration agents are active in Charlotte.
As ICE shows no signs of slowing down, though, it has local police playing catch-up.
‘Make them understand’
One police officer at the center of Charlotte’s immigration debate is Martin Baucom, who spends much of his time on patrol stopping by apartment complexes and strip malls and speaking to residents in Spanish.
It’s an unlikely job, he said, for someone who grew up in Union County believing that all immigrants in the U.S. should be required to learn English. But after fellow Officer Steve Branan insisted he tag along to Spanish class, Baucom has grown to love everything about Latino culture: the language, the people, the food.
Together, the duo has built relationships in their east Charlotte precinct that police leadership say are a model for the rest of the department.
The pair stops at church events and goes to community festivals. They shop and eat at Los Reyes 2 and have taken part in a program where Latino children teach them Spanish. Since 2016, they’ve led an initiative that brings officers together with immigrant families to share food, play ice-breakers and engage in conversation — all to show immigrants that police can be trusted.
“The more stuff you can do to make them understand, the better off you’re going to be,” Baucom said. “It’s a matter of educating them and showing them that we’re not ICE. We’re not a danger.”
Their work has never been more difficult than it is now, he said. From 2016 to 2017, immigrants reported 40 percent fewer crimes nationwide, according to a report by the ACLU. Domestic violence in particular often goes under-reported because victims fear detention or deportation if they reach out for help.
Elizabeth Martinez, who is from El Salvador, said that she and her husband were too afraid to call the police after their apartment was robbed in the summer of 2017. They both came to the U.S. illegally.
“It’s not that I’m afraid of the police,” she said. “I’m just afraid that the police will ask for my papers and take me.”
Efforts to combat that fear are coming from the top, too: Police Chief Kerr Putney has made appearances on Latina 102.3, a local Spanish-language radio station, to address misinformation and take questions about CMPD’s role and responsibilities. And about 4 percent of CMPD’s nearly 1,900 officers receive extra pay for speaking another language, most of them Spanish.
‘It really confuses people’
But all of that has been complicated by a shift in ICE’s enforcement tactics. After Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden cut off ICE’s access to county jails through 287(g), the federal agency said it had “no choice” but to ramp up arrests of those immigrants living here illegally, out on the streets and in neighborhoods.
During a week-long period of mass arrests in February, several ICE agents were captured on video wearing bulletproof vests labeled “POLICE,” as they stopped cars and put people in handcuffs.
Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, said that his agency’s officers never claim to be a member of another law enforcement agency and always visibly wear an ICE badge and insignia. And all of their tactics, he said, are used to target specific individuals.
“We deal with people who speak multiple languages and many individuals who may not speak any English,” Cox said. “‘Police’ is the universally understood term for law enforcement.”
Advocates, though, said the vests make it easy to confuse different agencies — especially when CMPD officers are also conducting traffic stops.
During the same week in February as those mass arrests, CMPD conducted traffic stops along East Independence Boulevard, a busy Latino thoroughfare where ICE agents had also been stopping cars and detaining people.
“It really confuses people who are in fear and don’t understand what’s going on,” said Stefania Arteaga, an organizer with the immigrants’ rights group Comunidad Colectiva. “They’re so scared that they stop going to businesses and stop sending their kids to school. Some stop leaving the house.”
Koch, the police spokesman, said that CMPD chooses in advance where to operate about two checkpoints each month, using data on the corridors with the highest numbers of serious crashes. The stops are part of the city’s effort to eliminate traffic-related fatalities.
But for many of the immigrants who drive, shop, and live nearby, those traffic stops were indistinguishable from ICE’s enforcement tactics: Law enforcement officers from both agencies were parked on the side of the road, stopping people they claimed had broken the law.
For that reason, immigration advocates like Arteaga have called on police to stop traffic checkpoints during periods of heightened ICE activity in Charlotte — even after city council voted unanimously not to.
City Councilman Tariq Bokhari said that the heightened fear among Charlotte’s immigrants would be most effectively addressed by reinstating the county’s participation in 287(g).
He said the partnership made it easier for ICE to arrest dangerous criminals and would allow the agency to decrease its presence in neighborhoods.
“No one was flooding city council about how children are suffering these terrible impacts before 287(g) was removed,” Bokhari said. “Activist groups are trying to solve the problem from the tail wagging the dog.”
Does CMPD know when ICE shows up?
Besides ceasing traffic stops, Arteaga said she wants police to make a statement recognizing when they become aware of heightened ICE activity.
CMPD knows about ICE showing up, she charged, because people have called the police to report the presence of suspicious vehicles operated by the agency for enforcement.
In at least one instance earlier this year, a U.S. citizen called the police after agents — who would not identify which agency they worked for — stopped her and insisted her driver’s license was fake, said Zoila Velasquez, a lawyer the woman had previously consulted.
But Koch said CMPD did not find out about the mass arrests in February until he was asked about them at a press conference, adding that 911 calls about ICE — or cars believed to be ICE — had no way of reaching the department’s leadership.
When a tipster reports a suspicious vehicle, CMPD officers are sent out to investigate and cannot take any action without signs of criminal activity, he said. These incidents are only recorded in CMPD’s call notes, hundreds of which are taken down by the department every day.
And even if federal agents are detaining someone, police say there is little they can do.
“The work that ICE does is not illegal,” Koch said. “They’re working within the parameters of the federal law.”
The role of HSI
The fliers that CMPD distributed to stores like Los Reyes 2 read in Spanish: CMPD has not participated nor will it participate in ICE’s immigration operations.
But that’s only true to a point. While CMPD does not collaborate with Enforcement and Removal Operations — the branch of ICE that deals with most arrests — it does work together with Homeland Security Investigations, a separate branch of the federal agency.
That department, which maintains one of its 30 offices in Charlotte, conducts investigations into child exploitation, computer crimes and money laundering, among other areas of criminal activity.
In 2015, HSI uncovered three local murders related to the gang MS-13; more recently, the office partnered with CMPD and state agencies to fight human trafficking during the NBA All-Star Game in February.
But it’s also responsible for workplace raids, such as one in February at an arms manufacturing plant in Sanford, N.C. that arrested 27 people, who were later charged with using stolen social security numbers and identification and then transferred to ERO.
Ruth Perez, an immigration advocate and member of the city’s international cabinet, said Charlotte does not need to go as far as California, which bans local jurisdictions from working with HSI in any capacity. While CMPD should help HSI with narcotics investigations, it should draw the line at falsified documents, she said.
“The cops are here to protect our city from criminal activity,” she said, and using fake documents shouldn’t be a crime.
Koch did not respond to requests for comment about the working relationship between HSI and ICE.
For his part, Baucom, the police officer, said he believes that CMPD should work with HSI on only the most extreme cases. He wants ICE to stop wearing vests that say “POLICE” and confuse the residents he works with every day.
But relationships are more of a concern for him than policy. Standing by the door of Los Reyes 2, he greeted each customer who walked inside with an accented buenos días and ¿Cómo estás?
“It’s a process to build that trust back up,” Baucom said. “If they don’t see it for themselves, they’re not going to believe it.”
He turned to head inside, to the hole-in-the-wall food counter in the back of the shop. There were carnitas for lunch.