Former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph is leaving his federal post just 11 months after being plucked by the Bush administration to lead a new effort to increase state and local coordination of immigration laws.
“I am resigning,” Pendergraph told the Observer Monday. “I have given them my notice. I plan to come home the last week of October.”
Pendergraph said he is returning to Charlotte to spend more time with his family.
The unexpected resignation, effective Oct. 24, comes weeks after Pendergraph drew controversy when he challenged a congressman who wanted to refocus spending on immigration enforcement.
Pendergraph's comments drew complaints from U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Pendergraph was not authorized to present the agency's views on appropriations.
In July, Pendergraph told a Durham television program that he was concerned about a lack of money for workplace enforcement of immigration laws.
Pendergraph was quoted as accusing Price, head of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, of being “politically correct” by putting emphasis only on criminal enforcement.
Price has said Homeland Security is spending too much money cracking down on laborers instead of focusing on dangerous criminals who have been released.
Price responded quickly to Pendergraph's allegations, pointing out that next year's spending plan allocates $800 million for identifying criminal aliens, and $1.2 billion for other ICE enforcement activities.
“This is a good balance that sets appropriate priorities for the agency, not a game of ‘political correctness,'” his office said in a statement.
Price's office said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and ICE head Julie Myers called the congressman and disavowed Pendergraph's statements. Price did not know of Pendergraph's resignation and declined to comment on it, his staffers said.
Pendergraph said the controversy did not play a role in his decision to leave.
“That was a couple months ago. … That issue has nothing to do with my decision to resign and come home to Charlotte,” he said.
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said leaving was Pendergraph's decision.
“It is with great regret that we accept his resignation,” Rocha said. “Sheriff Pendergraph's relationships with local law enforcement agencies across the country has been an asset for ICE as the agency's first director of the office of state and local coordination.”
Pendergraph reached national prominence battling illegal immigration locally. In May 2006, he became one of the nation's first sheriffs to join a pilot program that allowed him to place county inmates into deportation proceedings. Since the program began, 4,755 illegal immigrants have been targeted for deportation.
The Mecklenburg County program became a national model of how local and federal law enforcement officials could work together to combat illegal immigration. Pendergraph was invited to speak before Congress. On Dec. 3, he became the Homeland Security agency's first executive director of state and local coordination.
Pendergraph worked as a police officer in Charlotte for 23 years, first with the old county department and later with the consolidated city county agency. He rose to deputy chief before unseating former Sheriff C.W. Kidd in 1994. Pendergraph was serving his fourth term when he left the job – and touched off a nasty political controversy over his replacement between Sheriff Chipp Bailey and Nick Mackey, who won a party election that was overturned.
On Monday, Pendergraph said he's leaving ICE on good terms and is not being pushed out for being outspoken.
“That's not happening here,” he said. “If they were trying to force me out, I certainly wouldn't stay two months. If I was mad about something, I'd give them a week's notice and be out of here.”