Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael stood alone among his rivals this week in defending a controversial program that partners sheriff's deputies with federal immigration officials.
Carmichael defended the so-called 287(g) program at a Thursday night forum sponsored by the NAACP. Fellow Democrats Antoine Ensley and Garry McFadden both vowed to end the program.
With no Republican candidate, the winner of the May 8 Democratic primary will effectively win a four-year term as sheriff.
Under the 287(g) program, sheriff's deputies use a federal database to identify jail inmates who are undocumented immigrants. Federal officials then decide whether to start the process of deportation.
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"(It) is a simple federal database," Carmichael told a crowd at Little Rock AME Zion church. "It's safety and security for my staff. It's safety and security for the community."
McFadden, a former detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, said the program "destroys families" and hurts law enforcement.
"It damages the relationship between law enforcement and the community," he said.
Ensley, a former CMPD sergeant, small-town police chief and now human resources manager for the city of Charlotte, said he would end the program in order to protect families. Immigrants who are deported have to leave their families behind.
"Strong families make strong communities," Ensley said. "Strong families make safe communities."
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.
In defending the program, Carmichael only 1 percent of the 35,000 people processed last year at the jail were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Sheriff's office records show that 34 inmates have been processed for deportation this year. Most are from Mexico.
Carmichael said a third of all those detained under the 287(g) program have been accused of felonies.
Critics say violent criminals aren't always the ones caught up in federal deportation efforts.
Hector Vaca, Charlotte director for Action NC, has said the problem with the program is that "sometimes innocent people get caught up in it."
Supporters of the program say that's not the point.
Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes illegal immigration, has said, "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.
"All you have to do is be in violation of federal immigration laws," he said.