Politics & Government

Sheriff defends immigration screening at jail, citing ‘misinformation’ by critics

Oliver Merino of Comunidad Colectiva criticized a controversial program that leads to the deportation of undocumented immigrants after they’re arrested in Mecklenburg County.
Oliver Merino of Comunidad Colectiva criticized a controversial program that leads to the deportation of undocumented immigrants after they’re arrested in Mecklenburg County.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael on Tuesday defended a controversial federal program that flags county jail inmates for deportation proceedings.

The 287(g) program, which has been used in Mecklenburg County since 2006, runs the names of people arrested for any offense through a federal database to determine whether they’re undocumented immigrants. Fifty-nine jurisdictions in the United States participate in the program, including four other North Carolina counties.

Carmichael said elected officials and others have been spreading misinformation about 287(g).

He said the sheriff’s office is not involved in Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations outside the jail.

“A person will never encounter the 287(g) program unless they get arrested for breaking the law,” he said.

Opponents of the program say it takes away immigrants’ right to due process, because they only have to be charged – not convicted – to risk deportation.

While Carmichael spoke inside a building near the Mecklenburg County Jail Tuesday morning, a group of nearly 25 protesters gathered outside. Stefania Arteaga of Comunidad Colectiva said she wants Carmichael to know “it’s not okay to criminalize our community.”

“It’s a program that limits community trust with law enforcement, especially (with) the tension we are having in our country right now, with immigrants and people of color,” she said.

Carmichael said the program does not target people on the basis of race or ethnicity.

“It doesn’t target anyone,” he said. “Every person who is arrested, regardless of their race, every person gets asked the same two questions – what country are you a citizen or national of, and where were you born?”

Carmichael stood surrounded by posters of undocumented immigrants, stamped in red letters with felonies. To his immediate left was a poster of Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez, who was charged with four counts of first-degree murder in connection with a shooting spree that included the death of former “America’s Next Top Model” contestant Mirjana Puhar.

Asked how many people identified as undocumented through 287(g) are charged with felonies and how many are charged with misdemeanors, Carmichael said he didn’t have those numbers. The Observer has previously reported that nearly 4,000 out of more than 15,000 immigrants processed for deportation since the beginning of the program were arrested for DWI.

The Observer has submitted a public records request to ICE for information about the felony and misdemeanor charges. ICE said 901 of the people it encountered through 287(g) in Mecklenburg County in 2017 had prior criminal convictions and 406 did not.

A letter to Carmichael signed by more than 30 organizations and community leaders said the program undermines the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s efforts to build trust in immigrant communities. The program divides communities from law enforcement and does not make communities safer, said Matt Comer, the chair of local LGBTQ rights advocacy group MeckPAC, which signed the letter.

Asked about mistrust, Carmichael said the county’s top law enforcement officials have not told him about any issues.

The protest group tried to deliver the letter to Carmichael at the front desk of the jail Tuesday. Sheriff’s office officials escorted the protesters and accompanying reporters out of the building, saying they could be arrested because they had cameras.

“This is not his office, this is the jail,” one official said.

The protesters questioned that, pointing to the windows and doors of the jail’s lobby, which said “sheriff’s office” and Carmichael’s name in a large font.

They said they will email Carmichael the letter, which was signed by both of his opponents in the Democratic sheriff’s primary along with ACLU of North Carolina, UNC Charlotte’s Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Charlotte Uprising and Action NC, among others.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester