Politics & Government

After criticism, Charlotte’s mayor issues letter to immigrants on edge over ICE raids

Charlotte community addresses city council’s response to ICE enforcement

Charlotte residents rose concerns about perceived silence on immigration from city council. Mayor Vi Lyles responds and talks about committee to address immigration.
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Charlotte residents rose concerns about perceived silence on immigration from city council. Mayor Vi Lyles responds and talks about committee to address immigration.

Last week, immigrants and activists in Charlotte lit into Charlotte City Council and Mayor Vi Lyles in particular for not doing enough amid stepped-up federal enforcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

On Monday, Lyles said she heard the community’s concerns and issued a new letter that she hopes will address them. But it remains to be seen whether backlash over the council’s perceived inactivity will persist.

Since Mecklenburg County Sheriff Gary McFadden discontinued cooperation with ICE inside county jails, ICE officials have said they have no choice but to step up their enforcement on the street. That’s led to fear in the immigrant community about more aggressive enforcement measures.

“I do feel like it’s appropriate as mayor, with council’s acknowledgment, that we do something,” Lyles said Monday. She had previously set up an ad hoc committee of council members to listen to and conduct outreach to the city’s immigrant communities.

At last week’s public forum, Lyles was criticized for not signing a letter that seven other mayors in North Carolina endorsed, condemning the ICE enforcement efforts. The letter said “raids have struck terror in the hearts of many.”

Lyles said the stories she heard last week led her to issue her own letter.

“While difficult to hear, the impact of their voices left an indelible image for all our city,” Lyles said in the letter, which she read aloud Monday. “We know of the economic loss experienced by the business community and the trauma of children concerned about the welfare of their parents. We know the immigrant community contributes to the workforce that drives our success.”

She also emphasized that the city of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police aren’t working with ICE or other federal aw agencies on immigration enforcement. Council member Braxton Winston had questioned whether CMPD sobriety checkpoints in areas with many immigrants could be conflated with ICE checkpoints and stir up more fear.

Tera Long, who spoke before the council at last week’s meeting, said that she saw the letter from Lyles as “kind of a meeting halfway.”

Long said a resolution from the entire city council condemning ICE — much like the one Mecklenburg County Commission voted unanimously to put out — would have been the best outcome.

“But I’m very happy that she’s working and she’s making our immigrant community look positive in this letter,” she said.

Nhora Gomez-Saxon attended the meeting last week with a sign that read: “I am a great immigrant. I voted for you.” She was disappointed with Lyles’ letter.

“She has been saying the same words over and over and over,” Gomez-Saxon said. “What we asked her to do was very concrete. We wanted a proclamation. This is not a proclamation. We wanted her to condemn ICE and she doesn’t do it.”

Immigration — a federal issue over which the city has little direct control — has been a contentious subject at recent City Council meetings.

Last month, council debated whether to allow potentially undocumented Charlotteans to serve on advisory boards, which advise City Council on everything from zoning to public art to homelessness. City Council ultimately voted to do so, by removing a requirement that people serving on advisory boards be registered voters.

At the forum last week, activists had said words matter.

“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 last week.

Lyles said she agrees — to a point.

“I believe words alone are not enough,” Lyles said. “Words must be coupled with intentional action as we build solutions together.”

She said the city is putting resources into dealing with the issue through its ad hoc committee, made up of council members Dimple Ajmera, Larken Egleston, James Mitchell and Matt Newton. The group plans to hold seven “community collaboration sessions” over the coming 45 days, one in each council district, to hear from the community and find solutions to make Charlotte more inclusive.

But Long worried that those meetings would not be safe— or be able to attract — undocumented immigrants, who may fear the presence of ICE agents there.

“They’re not going to jump up and say, ‘oh let’s go to a town hall so that ICE can capture us,’ ” she said.

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.
Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University and a native Spanish speaker.
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