When it comes to supporting Charlotte’s immigrants, city government officials said their actions will speak louder than words. But immigration advocates wanted words first.
In the wake of a wave of mass arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier in February, Mayor Vi Lyles said she has created an ad hoc city council committee that will conduct outreach to the city’s immigrant communities.
But that response was too little and too late for many immigration advocates, who packed city council on Monday evening as they called on its members to take a stronger stance against the arrests.
They slammed Lyles and the council for failing to put out a statement condemning ICE. And they asked for the council to add immigration reform to its federal legislative agenda — a move it had declined to make at previous meetings.
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“You may think that your words don’t matter, but we’re here to tell you that ICE can hear you and your silence loud and clear,” Sil Ganzó, the executive director of Our Bridge for Kids, said before the council.
Ganzó, whose non-profit works immigrant and refugee children, said that she was unable to tell those children they belong in Charlotte because the city had failed to affirm its support for them and their families.
“Your silence is saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do. Take them,’” she said.
Lyles first announced the formation of the ad hoc committee on Feb. 14, writing on Twitter that she was “acutely aware” of the paralyzing sense of fear the arrests had caused.
She appointed four council members — Dimple Ajmera, Larken Egleston, James Mitchell and Matt Newton — to work with Federico Rios, the city’s immigrant and integration manager, on facilitating outreach and finding “potential action.”
During the meeting, Rios said the committee will be holding seven town hall meetings — one in each city council district — to hear from the community and “co-create” solutions that make Charlotte more inclusive.
He told the Observer last week that the town halls will also serve to educate attendees on the limits of the city’s jurisdiction on immigration, where the responsibilities of different levels of government can get hazy.
“We’ll be giving people that little bit of front-end education,” he told the Observer, “but also asking them, ‘What are the ways that we can assist, support, be more inclusive?’”
Jorge Millares, director of the advocacy non-profit Queen City Unity, praised the creation of the committee but said that he and other advocates were disappointed that the council had not taken a stronger stance earlier on.
“You’ve got to stop the bleeding while you’re working on the surgery long term,” Millares said in an interview with the Observer on Tuesday. “The approach seems to be to start the surgery without stopping the bleeding.”
Last week, Mecklenburg County commissioners issued a resolution that “declares support for our immigrant residents” and for County Sheriff Garry McFadden, who ended the city’s collaboration with ICE officers.
ICE officials said that without the controversial 287(g) program and without a presence in county jails, they had no choice but to step up their enforcement on the street.
That move was condemned in a letter signed by seven mayors across North Carolina. During Monday’s meeting, Lyles said she did not sign onto the letter because she wanted to be able to consult the council first — and because she was working on setting up the committee instead.
“I try to respect the form of the government that we have,” she said. “I thought I was setting up and doing something that would work.”
And Egleston, the council member chairing the committee, told the Observer last week that the ad hoc committee was a concrete step that would show the city is taking action.
“While I do think it is critically important for us to make statements of support and be clear on where we stand,” he said, “I would question the results that they yield.”
During their statements before the council, advocates also called on city officials to add immigration reform to its federal legislative agenda. Doing so, Millares said, would enable city council members to bring the topic up in March with North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
At a council meeting two weeks ago, the council voted not to include immigration on the list. And when a motion was introduced to open a discussion about the topic, that was voted down too.
Following the testimony, Lyles addressed the crowd directly, telling them that she has “heard” them and acknowledging that their response failed to meet expectations.
“I’m trying to learn more about what you do expect,” she said. “This isn’t the first time this audience has been filled with people that care deeply about this issue. I’ve lived here for a very long time.”
Ganzó interrupted her.
“So have we,” she shouted from the crowd.