Politics & Government

A Democratic mayor opposes deportation program. But she voted to bring it to her city.

An audience member stands on a bench outside the meeting chamber at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center and addresses her concerns about ICE raids as Mayor Jennifer Roberts, right, and Council Member James Mitchell, Jr. , front right, listen after the Charlotte City Council meeting on Monday, February 27, 2017. In 2006, Roberts voted to support the Sheriff’s Office partnership with the federal government under the 287(g) program.
An audience member stands on a bench outside the meeting chamber at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center and addresses her concerns about ICE raids as Mayor Jennifer Roberts, right, and Council Member James Mitchell, Jr. , front right, listen after the Charlotte City Council meeting on Monday, February 27, 2017. In 2006, Roberts voted to support the Sheriff’s Office partnership with the federal government under the 287(g) program. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In the first mayoral debate last month, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts was unequivocal in her opposition to the controversial 287(g) program, a partnership between the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office and the federal government to identify and detain people in the country illegally.

But Roberts helped bring 287(g) to Charlotte.

In February 2006, as a Mecklenburg commissioner, Roberts was part of a unanimous vote to approve an agreement between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the 287(g) program – the first government east of Phoenix to do so.

During the same meeting, she also supported spending $236,000 to fund new positions for then-Sheriff Jim Pedergraph’s program, which makes it easier to deport people in the country illegally.

The 287(g) program gave Sheriff’s Office employees training to be in effect federal immigration officers. If someone brought into the jail is found to be in the country illegally, the Sheriff’s Office works with ICE to detain them until the federal government decides whether the person should stay or go.

In most cities and counties, local law enforcement will make no special effort to hold someone past their normal stay in jail.

Through the rest of her tenure as a Mecklenburg commissioner through 2012, Roberts was silent from the dais on the issue of 287(g) – even as local and national immigrant advocates opposed the program, according to a review of meeting minutes. Many said 287(g) made immigrant communities less likely to trust the police to report crimes.

As immigration has become a widely debated issue under President Donald Trump, however, Roberts has become a vocal critic of the administration’s policies.

In the last five months, she has said on many occasions that “no one should be deported because of a broken taillight,” yet her vote to create 287(g) in Mecklenburg made that more likely.

Roberts said Wednesday that she and other commissioners believed a decade ago the program would focus only on violent offenders.

“I think keeping violent offenders off the street should be a priority,” she said.

She said that Congress was considering comprehensive immigration reform at the time, and that the 287(g) would have complemented legislation that would have created a pathway to citizenship for people in the county illegally. That legislation failed.

“I believe 287(g) has gone beyond its original scope, and the Trump administration is making it clear they will use it to disrupt families. I now believe it’s the wrong approach.”

But questions about 287(g) had been raised long before the Trump presidency.

Soon after 287(g) was enacted, a number of immigrant groups blasted the partnership, saying it was targeting people who weren’t violent.

A 2009 UNC-Chapel Hill and American Civil Liberties Union study questioned how 287(g) was being used in the state, including Mecklenburg County. For instance, the report said, “the arrest data appears to indicate that Mecklenburg and Alamance Counties are typical in the targeting of Hispanics for traffic offenses for the purposes of a deportation policy.”

In April 2010, a number of people, including LaWana Mayfield, who would become a City Council member a year later, spoke at a commissioners meeting against the 287(g) program. Mecklenburg commissioners, including Roberts, did not respond.

“I remember numerous community conversations about it,” Roberts said. “I remember meeting with ICE officials to try and straighten out what’s going on. We were hearing different things from different sides.”

A review of the minutes from Mecklenburg commissioners meetings shows no instances in which Roberts raised questions about the program, however. Commissioners fund the Sheriff’s Office, and they could have leverage to impact how it’s being run.

“The county clearly has the ability to affect policy, and they can effect what it pays for (in funding the Sheriff’s Office),” said Republican commissioner Jim Puckett. “She was there. I don’t remember her having a problem with it.”

Roberts left the commission in 2012. Before becoming mayor in 2015, she worked on an Immigrant Integration Task Force, where she supported a request to end the 287(g) partnership with ICE.

Most aggressive position

By participating in 287(g), the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy group, places Mecklenburg in the most restrictive category toward undocumented immigrants. Including Mecklenburg County, ICE has only 38 total 287(g) agreements with counties and cities throughout the nation.

Five are in North Carolina: Mecklenburg, Gaston, Cabarrus, Wake and Henderson counties.

The American Immigration Council has alleged that the 287(g) program nationwide has “been costly for localities, has not focused on serious criminals, and has harmed the relationship between police and local communities.”

The Sheriff’s Office said it has processed nearly 29,000 foreign-born people in the Mecklenburg jail since the program began. Of those, 15,018 were either deported or “placed in removal proceedings.”

Of those, 1,752 had been deported before and had returned to the U.S and 1,232 had been ordered to leave but had remained in the U.S.

Another large group: 3,783 had been arrested for DWI.

The sheriff said its deputies uses the IDENT database to match the fingerprints and photographs of people arrested against people who are known to be in the country illegally. In some cases, 287(g) deputies will interview someone who has been arrested to determine if they are here legally.

Tough reelection fight

Roberts is running for re-election this fall.

She has drawn two high-profile challengers: Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, a Democrat, and State Sen. Joel Ford. City Council member Kenny Smith is the only Republican in the race so far.

Lyles has been on the City Council since 2013. Before that she was an assistant city manager with Charlotte from 1996 to 2004.

During her stint as an elected official, the city has had only a few votes relating to immigration.

In 2015, she voted for the city’s civil rights resolution, which said that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police would not ask about the immigration status of suspects or people they interview. She also supported creating what’s known as a “municipal ID,” which could have been used by undocumented people.

In the fall of 2015, the General Assembly passed a law that prohibited Charlotte’s policy of not having police ask about immigration status. It also prohibited the city from creating a municipal ID.

As a state senator, Ford voted against that bill, House Bill 318.

“I support the idea of being able to provide IDs for the immigrant community,” he said.

Last month, Ford voted against a bill that would strip so-called “sanctuary cities” of some state funding. Though Charlotte says it’s not a sanctuary city, some Republican legislators say that Roberts’s negative comments as mayor toward 287(g) and the Trump administration show that she wishes the city would defy the law.

Ford said the city needs to “be strong advocates for not breaking up families and for not deporting non-violent immigrants.” He also called for a pathway to citizenship to families don’t have to live in fear.

When asked whether he supports the 287(g) agreement, Ford was less clear.

“As a leader I think it’s important to be in compliance with state and federal law,” he said. “We cannot afford to jeopardize our federal and state funding for not being in compliance.”

The 287(g) program, however, is voluntary. Mecklenburg and Charlotte would likely be in compliance with state and federal law even if it did not partner with ICE.

Lyles said she doesn’t support the 287(g) program.

“With over 14 million immigrants, 287(g) is a national program that breaks up families and communities that are vital to our city,” she said in a statement to the Observer. “I do not support it as it stands today; we need a national resolution that takes a holistic approach to immigration reform.”

She said the city needs a mayor “who is going to make sure every child has a safe neighborhood to grow up in, every parent has a job with a way to get there and every citizen has a home.”

Smith said he supports 287(g).

“287(g) is a tool used to keep violent criminals and gang members off our street” Smith said. “I would ask the mayor how she plans to protect families if we withdraw from 287(g). It’s a tool we have.”

Activists upset

During her time as mayor, Roberts has been more vocally supportive of the city’s immigrant community than the City Council. But she hasn’t gained the trust of some activists.

Héctor Vaca, the Charlotte director of Action NC, was one of the people speaking before the Mecklenburg commissioners in 2010, asking them to reconsider 287(g).

He said Roberts supported 287(g) based on “bad information” that Charlotte’s crime rate was rising, which had been attributed to immigrants. But he questions her opposition today.

“It’s easy for her to come out against 287(g) because it’s not her responsibility,” he said. “It sounds like she’s pro-immigrant, but she hasn’t done anything.”

Vaca said Roberts and the city should pass a resolution criticizing 287(g) and the ICE raids. He said they could approve more money for non-profits that help immigrants.

Johnelle Causwell is program director for the International House, which offers services to the city’s immigrant community. She said criticism of Roberts is unfair, and that the mayor is a “staunch advocate and ally for the immigrant community.”

“I really think people are missing what’s in her heart,” Causwell said. “They are bringing up stuff from 2010. That’s light years ago in terms of the political landscape. I do not believe she would support that program in a different time.”

After February’s immigration march, activists shut down the City Council meeting with demands that the city do more. City officials, including Roberts, met with immigrants one-on-one and in small groups in the lobby of the Government Center for more than hour.

She told protesters that the city was limited in what it could do, especially with the General Assembly threatening to withhold tens of millions of dollars from Charlotte if it appeared to be a sanctuary city.

“I think it’s clear that trust is essential in helping keeping our communities safe,” Roberts said Wednesday. “It’s clear that this program has eroded the trust in the immigrant community and the program can’t be effective when people don’t feel comfortable calling law enforcement. Everyone is less safe. I don’t think it’s working.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs