After North Carolina’s largest counties cut ties with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency said it’s been forced to adopt a “new normal”: one that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of immigrants living here illegally this week.
“This is the direct result of some of the dangerous policies some of our county sheriffs have put into place,” said Sean Gallagher, who oversees the agency’s operation in the Carolinas and Georgia. “It really forces my officers to go out onto the street to conduct more enforcement operations out in the community.”
Since December, newly elected sheriffs in the state’s two most populous counties — Mecklenburg and Wake — have reversed a policy that effectively allows deputies to work as immigration enforcement. The Durham County Sheriff’s Office also ended the practice of honoring ICE detainers.
These changes, Gallagher said, have given the agency “no choice” but to conduct targeted enforcement across the state this week. “This is politics over public safety at its worst,” he said.
From Monday through Thursday, ICE officers detained 200 individuals in North Carolina alone, not counting another 25 who were arrested in an unrelated raid on an arms manufacturing plant in Sanford.
Sheriffs in Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham counties — all of whom emphasized severing ties with ICE in their campaign platforms last year — defended this shift, rejecting the notion that it had made their jurisdictions more dangerous.
And immigrant rights groups blasted ICE for stoking fear and using the decisions of local law enforcement to justify heightened ICE enforcement.
Across the state, the arrests — many of which took place at traffic stops by officers in vests that read “POLICE” — left immigrant communities paralyzed, they said.
“This is not new,” said Viridiana Martinez, an organizer with Alerta Migratoria NC, an activist group in Raleigh. “It’s just the first time since the sheriffs have drawn the line in the sand. To me, this is clearly in retaliation.”
Nearly one-third of those taken into custody by ICE this week are what the agency calls “collateral” arrests: immigrants who are living here illegally but lack any kind of criminal conviction or pending charges.
That figure was less than 10 percent for those arrested in the most recent fiscal year. Gallagher, the ICE field director, said more of these individuals are likely to be taken into custody when ICE is restricted from accessing county jails.
“If they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, my officers will take an enforcement action,” he said.
As the news conference took place inside a Department of Homeland Security office in south Charlotte, city council member Braxton Winston was threatened with arrest for trying to enter the building without media credentials, he said.
Speaking to reporters and activists outside the office, Winston said he was told by Robert Alfieri, an ICE official, that the arrests represent a “new normal” because Mecklenburg County’s new sheriff, Garry McFadden, is not cooperating with federal immigration enforcement.
Under the controversial 287(g) program, local deputies check a federal database to see if any inmates are in the country illegally. If they are, inmates are held until ICE can detain them and begin deportation proceedings. About 1,200 individuals were detained through the program in Mecklenburg County last year.
McFadden and Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker each defended their decision to terminate the program, noting that inmates are released from county jail based on court orders or bail set by the courts.
“To suggest that dangerous people are suddenly walking out of jail because of the termination of the 287g policy is engaging in cynical fear mongering,” McFadden said in a statement.
And Baker, whose campaign platform included promises to end the program, said in a statement that his office “has no role in immigration enforcement.”
Wake County began participating in 287(g) in 2007, under Republican Sheriff Donnie Harrison. Last fall, the sheriff’s office said 10,883 people were processed through the program in Wake between 2013 and 2017. Of them, 1,483 were deported, according to the office.
Harrison, who lost his seat in November to Baker, a Democrat, said participating in the program helped deputies identify suspects who provided aliases.
Felicia Arriaga, an Appalachian State University professor who has studied 287(g), said that this week’s arrests represent a shift in how ICE conducts enforcement locally.
While similar kinds of wide-scale arrests have occurred in February for several years, Arriaga said that ICE is no longer able to rely on county jails and must instead depend on other partnerships with local law enforcement.
At least a handful of arrests occurred in Alamance County, which has not participated in 287(g) in several years but where the county jail contracts with ICE to house immigrant detainees.
In Durham County, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead “stands by his decision to end the practice of honoring ICE detainers,” his office said.
“It is unfortunate that ICE is now becoming more active in North Carolina, specifically in Durham,” Birkhead said in a statement. “The recent actions of ICE agents are making persons, in our community, afraid of law enforcement.”
Of the 200 individuals arrested this week, one-quarter have criminal convictions, one-fifth have pending cases and another quarter have evaded deportation orders.