Can Charlotte better protect its immigrant community from the sometimes destructive activity of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents? It’s a question that’s flared up in the wake of mass ICE arrests last month, leaving Charlotte’s mayor and City Council once again trying to navigate two conflicting realities.
On the one side is a shaken immigrant community that wants Mayor Vi Lyles and the council to stand up and speak out against raids and arrests that have stoked fear and torn apart families here.
On the other side are federal and ICE officials who aren’t inclined to listen regardless of how loudly the Charlotte mayor and council object.
That tension played out at Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting, where immigrants and advocates lashed out at Lyles and the council for what they perceive as inaction in the face of the arrests. Speakers criticized Lyles for declining to join seven N.C. mayors in a letter condemning heightened ICE activity, and they questioned why the council had not added immigration reform to its federal legislative agenda.
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“Your silence is saying ‘There’s nothing we can do. Take them,’ “ said Sil Ganzo, executive director of Our Bridge for Kids.
But what can a city and its mayor do to stand up to ICE?
“We have very little control over what’s done by federal agents,” Lyles told the editorial board this week. “The community would like us to say ‘stop,’ and they think we can say that and it would happen. But that’s not the case.”
She’s right. Federal officials can conduct raids whenever and wherever they’d like, including in municipal buildings and at schools. The latter are among the “sensitive locations” that ICE says it tries to avoid, but if officials see fit to make mass arrests in Charlotte — even at a bus stop or courthouse — there’s nothing local government can do.
What can Charlotte officials say? Plenty — but that comes with some risk. ICE has shown a streak of vindictiveness under this administration, including when officials brazenly suggested that the mass arrests in Charlotte were a response to Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden ending the county’s participation in the controversial 287(g) program. Lyles and the council can condemn ICE raids, but turning up the volume too high might invite retaliatory action — an escalation that only hurts those the city and advocates want to protect from further harm. Speaking up might also antagonize lawmakers in Raleigh, who long have put a legislative target on Charlotte’s back. In 2017, legislators considered a bill penalizing the city tens of millions of dollars after then-mayor Jennifer Roberts suggested that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police don’t enforce immigration laws.
Lyles, by nature, prefers pragmatism to proclamations, which is why she tasked four council members last month to work with city staff on outreach efforts to educate and comfort the immigrant community about city services. Advocates say that’s not enough, and Lyles understands why. Last month’s arrests included what ICE coldly calls “collateral” — undocumented immigrants who have no criminal records and are productive members of the community. Those arrests harm families and children who have lost parents and providers.
“I do know that people are really suffering,” Lyles told the editorial board. “I’ve learned that words are sometimes as important as actions.”
But, she says: “I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”
We appreciate the difficulty, and we urge the mayor to keep trying.