Politics & Government

Your vote may decide whether Mecklenburg County helps deport undocumented immigrants

For over a decade, Mecklenburg County’s sheriff has had a hand in deporting hundreds if not thousands of undocumented immigrants. Now that could change.

The deportations have come under a controversial program known as 287(g), which partners sheriff’s deputies with federal immigration officials.

Under the program, deputies use a federal database to identify inmates who are undocumented immigrants, whether they’re in jail for traffic offenses or violent crimes. Federal officials then decide whether to start the process of deportation.

Sheriff Irwin Carmichael is a Democrat who supports the program. In the May primary he faces two challengers who oppose it.

That means while Congress and the White House struggle over immigration, Mecklenburg voters will have their own voice on immigration policy. A new sheriff could end the program.

Garry McFadden, a former detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, says the program hurts local law enforcement by making immigrants wary of police. It also can tear apart an immigrant family, he says, by deporting its breadwinner.

Antoine Ensley, a former CMPD sergeant and now human resources manager for the City of Charlotte, agrees.

The election could determine whether Mecklenburg County remains among the 59 jurisdictions nationwide that are part of program.

For now it’s one of five North Carolina counties that participate along with Gaston, Cabarrus, Henderson and Wake counties. Only Texas has more law enforcement agencies in the program.

Carmichael says access to the federal database can help identify inmates who might have a record in their home country.

“The whole purpose of this is safety and security,” says Carmichael. “This is a tool for us to know who’s in our community and who’s in our facilities.”

McFadden, now a CMPD community engagement officer, says he’s afraid the program discourages immigrants from trusting police.

“Imagine crimes being committed in your neighborhood,” he says, “but your fear of talking to police makes you not report those crimes.”

Ensley, who lost to Carmichael in the 2014 primary, says the country has many immigration issues. “And we’re not going to solve the problem in Mecklenburg County,” he says.

Last year the sheriff’s office had a hand in deporting 288 people, most from Mexico and Latin America. All had been arrested on charges from drunken driving to more violent crimes.

Twelve years of 287(g)

Mecklenburg County has a long history with 287(g).

In early 2006, under then-Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, it became the first county east of Arizona to partner with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. By that November, more than 900 undocumented immigrants had been placed in deportation proceedings.

About half would have been released were it not for the program that identified them as undocumented.

Since the program began, 15,478 inmates have been processed for deportation, according to the sheriff’s office. Nearly 4,000 had been arrested for DWI.

The program allows deputies to search inmates in a federal biometric database.

“When I was in office, folks would come into the jail and we couldn’t always identify them,” says former Sheriff Chipp Bailey, who served from 2008-2014. “The only way we could identify them was through a linkup to the ICE database.”

A 2011 study by the Migration Policy Institute found that Mecklenburg turned the focus of the program from identifying the most dangerous criminals and security threats to finding as many undocumented immigrants as possible.

Critics say that erodes trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

“The biggest problem is involving local police in immigration undermines the legitimacy … of local governments in the eyes of the immigrant community,” says Lena Graber, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “One of the reasons we and a lot of people oppose 287(g) is … the rate of racial profiling goes up dramatically.”

Last month Graber co-authored a study that found over 400 counties began to decrease their participation with federal immigration officials last year. It said five states, California, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington, enacted statewide policies restricting the participation of local agencies in federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Some groups have gone to court to challenge ICE “detainers,” which allow agencies like the sheriff’s office to hold prisoners up to 48 hours after their scheduled release while ICE decides to pursue deportation efforts. Several courts have found that detainers violate Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures.

Critics say violent criminals aren’t always the ones caught up in federal deportation efforts.

“The problem with 287(g) is that sometimes innocent people get caught up in it,” says Hector Vaca, Charlotte director for Action NC, a community organizing group. “It hurts our community and makes our community less safe.”

Supporters of the program say that’s not the point.

“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,” says spokesman Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes illegal immigration. “All you have to do is be in violation of federal immigration laws.”

Community safety

At the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office, deputies lay a dozen rap sheets on a conference table. Each pictures somebody arrested for a serious crime this year and identified through 287(g) as an undocumented immigrant.

“If nobody’s reporting crime, where do these folks come from?” Captain Daniel Stitt asks a visitor. “To have one more tool to make sure this community is safe, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to have that.”

Under the sheriff’s office agreement with ICE, the sheriff has the authority to end the county’s involvement with 287(g). It’s unclear whether state lawmakers would react. Legislation that passed the Senate last year would threaten local governments seen as “sanctuaries” with a loss of state funds. However, ending the immigration program simply would leave Mecklenburg in the same category as 95 other N.C. counties.

McFadden says while he opposes 287(g), he’s willing to listen to those who support it. The former detective helped start a program called “Cops and Barbers” to build trust between CMPD and the community. The 287(g) program runs counter to that by discouraging that trust, he says.

“We’re letting crime happen because people are scared of making reports,” he says. “They are in fear of going to jail and nobody has sat down and (told them) you can be a witness and not go to jail.”

Ensley, a former officer who now works in human resources for the city of Charlotte, points to the disruption of families if a father is deported after a relatively minor traffic offense.

“To me it’s about families and children,” he says. “And when we disrupt that we put our community at risk.”

How many immigrants are caught up for minor traffic offenses is unclear. But according to the sheriff’s office, of the nearly 15,500 inmates who’ve been processed for deportation in 12 years, nearly 4,000 were jailed on DWI charges.

“This entire community wants the same thing,” says Carmichael. “We want safety and security and this is a tool for supplying it.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill