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ICE’d out: The long arm of federal immigration enforcement reaches into North Carolina

by Jordan Green

The two immigration officials stroll briskly through the parking garage at Mecklenburg County Jail-Central in downtown Charlotte, followed by two county sheriff sergeants. The lawmen deposit their sidearms in metal safe boxes and wait for someone inside to activate the sliding door that leads to the detention center’s processing area.

Jeff Jordan, an assistant special agent in charge at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Charlotte office – more commonly known as ICE – gives a quick briefing to David Alejandro, the unit chief for the 287(g) program in the agency’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations. Alejandro is down from Washington today to give a pep talk to a new batch of sheriffs’ deputies from Alamance, Gaston and Mecklenburg counties, and to drop in for a visit to one of the federal agency’s model local law enforcement partnerships.

Two inmates in orange jail scrubs, plastic sandals and metal cuffs are ready for presentation. One of them, with wiry hair cut neatly at the nape and a light mustache, rises from the bench gazing ahead with cool, dispassionate eyes as he’s led to the counter by a deputy, while another with curly brown locks hanging about his shoulders waits his turn.

“I think when Myrick talks about 287(g), she’s thinking of Mecklenburg,” Jordan tells Alejandro, possibly alluding to a future public appearance with the congresswoman. “Just be aware of that.”

Alejandro nods. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican whose congressional district encompasses Charlotte, is a big supporter of the 287(g) program and a staunch advocate of tougher immigration enforcement.

Myrick met in early January with border agent Jose Alonso Compean, who was set to begin a 12-year prison sentence for shooting an undocumented immigrant who was reportedly attempting to smuggle hundreds of pounds of marijuana into the country. Myrick called the government “un-American” for turning its back on Compean and a colleague, men who, she said, “put their lives on the line for our country.”

The deputy presses the inky fingers of Enrique Lopez-DeLeo – the one with short hair – onto a blotter connected to a special computer monitor with access to ICE’s national database. Sgt. Quinn Stansell informs the feds that the inmate was arrested for trafficking cocaine and heroin. The deputy types in an FBI number and begins a search of the bureau’s National Crime Information Center database. Nothing comes up.

Next, the deputy submits the fingerprints to the ICE database. After a couple minutes a list of ICE enforcement actions materializes on the screen, including a prior removal from the country with a five-year ban on reentry. Three photographs splay across the screen, each of different times the man has been caught by ICE, including two previous encounters in 2006 and 2004. The 2004 records list him as “Erick Ramirez-Cortez.”

“That’s probably his real name,” Stansell says. “The name we have today is probably an alias.”

Then the two sergeants and the two ICE officials repair to a small cinderblock office shared by Stansell and his colleague, Sgt. Daniel Stitt.

“These guys are really efficient,” Jordan says, as Stansell produces three pages of statistics on the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office’s immigration and customs enforcement program, including the number of inmates received and processed for removal, and a breakdown of the offenses committed by those flagged for deportation.

“Do me a favor,” Alejandro says. “If you can include me on the e-mail, the assistant secretary is always asking for the numbers. Since you guys are the success story….”

The 287(g) program deputizes local law enforcement officers to act on behalf of ICE, which means identifying, processing and detaining immigration offenders. In Mecklenburg County’s case, the sheriff’s office restricts its immigration enforcement activities to the jail, but other counties such as Alamance also plan to implement the program in the field, enforcing immigration law against “offenders they encounter during their regular, daily law-enforcement activity,” as ICE phrases it. Officials in charge of the program stress that local law enforcement officers receive the same training as federal agents engaged in immigration enforcement. A three-way memorandum of understanding between ICE, the Mecklenburg County Commission and Sheriff Pendergraph states that all immigration enforcement activities by local officers are supervised by the federal agency.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office had processed almost 1,300 undocumented immigrant detainees for removal by mid-January. The inmates are transported by bus from Charlotte to Atlanta for deportation.

In addition to deputizing its officers to handle immigration offenses in field operations and jail processing, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office plans go one step further than Mecklenburg by assisting ICE in the post-arrest phase of operations. Lying midway between the Triad and the Triangle on a major traffic artery where interstates 40 and 85 merge, Alamance County is strategically positioned to play a significant role in the immigration enforcement industrial complex.

“We’re going to be a deportation center,” says Randy Jones, a spokesman sheriff’s office. “People are going to be brought in – I don’t know what the district’s area is – it may be from Virginia to South Carolina. We’re going to be involved in transportation.

“The biggest change with what they’re calling field officers is they’ll be able to go out and assist ICE officers,” he continues. “There’s going to be an ICE officer who will have an office in the jail facility. Field officers will be the ones who will escort the forty detainees that come in from Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina on the [plane] to El Paso. They’ll be federally sworn officers.”

Since the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office inaugurated the first 287(g) program in the state in April 2006, North Carolina has proven to be one of ICE’s most enthusiastic partners.

On Jan. 23, the first day of the agency’s second North Carolina training sessions, Jordan tells 26 deputies seated in a conference room at the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office that North Carolina has one of the highest percentages of local law enforcement officers participating in the program. The local lawmen will be reviewing ICE operational procedures, statutory authority, immigration law and other subjects through the middle of February.

“North Carolina ought to be proud,” Jordan says. “I know California doesn’t come close.”

Alejandro will later say that 46 law local law enforcement agencies across the nation have applied for the training. The program is open to both county sheriff’s offices and municipal police forces, but so far most of the interest has come from county law enforcement.

Sheriff Jim Pendergraph lavishes praise on the program.

“There are talkers and there are those who talk about doing things,” he says. “I think, except for one person, Congresswoman Sue Myrick, all the doers are in this room.”

With the deputies hitting the books following opening remarks, the three sheriffs – Pendergraph, Terry Johnson of Alamance County, and Alan Cloninger of Gaston County – convene in the hallway.

“This is the best thing I ever did,” Pendergraph says. “We’re finding that a side benefit is that gang activity in this county is going down. They’re finding they don’t want to get knotted up with this.”

“Now they’re all coming to Alamance,” Johnson quips.

He’s only half joking.

Local law enforcement officials note with concern that successes in Mecklenburg County could have the unintended consequence of shifting the problem of illegal immigration to jurisdictions with less aggressive enforcement policies. The possibility of an inter-county arms race in immigration enforcement, coupled with a public mood of growing resentment towards those who flout immigration rules, makes Mecklenburg a potential harbinger for the rest of the state.

County sheriffs – unlike their counterparts at the helms of municipal police departments – are directly elected by the voters, and thus are more keenly attuned to public sentiment than police chiefs, who answer to a city manager.

Last year, former Winston-Salem councilman Vernon Robinson ran a vigorous though ultimately unsuccessful congressional campaign to unseat Rep. Brad Miller, stoking fears of an immigrant invasion from south of the border to woo voters. And the Minuteman Project, a nativist organization that has dispatched volunteers to southern Arizona to help apprehend illegal border crossers, made an appearance in Greensboro in May, drawing dozens of supporters. Minuteman cofounder Jim Gilchrist later enjoyed a friendly reception from host Allan Handelman as a guest on FM Talk 101.1, a station that broadcasts across the Triad and the Triangle from Burlington.

Even Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes made flattering comments about the Minutemen to a national news outlet.

In a statement to YES! Weekly last October, Barnes indicated that he was giving serious consideration to signing up for the 287(g) program.

“Presently, if we have an illegal alien who is arrested for some other charge, we can and do hold them for the government, but… because of overcrowded conditions they must move them to another facility immediately,” he said. “My biggest fear is that if we don’t become part of this program, those illegal aliens will start using this county as a safe haven.”

Deputy Janet DeBerry told YES! Weekly on Jan. 26 that the sheriff’s office had not submitted an application to receive the ICE training.

“We’re definitely looking into it,” she said, “but we have not totally decided that we’re going to participate at this time.” She said if the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office does decide to implement the 287(g) program, it would only be used in the jail and not for interrogations in field operations.

A spokeswoman for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office in Raleigh said her agency has sent representatives down to Charlotte to observe the 287(g) program in Mecklenburg County and was reviewing costs, but was not currently participating. And a spokesman for the neighboring Durham County Sheriff’s Office said his agency had looked into 287(g), but had no plans to participate.

The Orange County Commission, a county board whose jurisdiction includes Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, went a step further. On Jan. 23 the commission approved a resolution committing the county to not entering into any agreement with ICE to enforce immigration laws. Supporting its resolution, the commission declared: “Orange County is home to a diverse population, including people of color, documented and undocumented immigrants, citizens and non-citizens, whose contributions to the community are vital to its character and function.” The commission asserted that “jurisdictions that have entered [agreements with ICE] have experienced increased violence against Latino/Hispanic communities and increased incidents of racial profiling against people of color.”

Immigrant rights advocates in Greensboro and Raleigh are keeping a close watch on the progress of the 287(g) program in other parts of the state.

“It seems to be a politically and financially appealing program to the sheriffs in several parts of North Carolina, particularly in towns and cities that have experienced new and recent growth of Latino immigrants,” Nolo Martinez, director of research and outreach at UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians, wrote in an e-mail to YES! Weekly. “Unfortunately, the program will intimidate and increase fear among many North Carolina residents, including their children (thousands of undocumented and monolingual Spanish speakers). Many crimes will go unreported, even when crimes are against them.”

Alamance holds a reputation among advocates as a county particularly unfriendly to undocumented immigrants.

“People there are most afraid to contact the police,” says the Rev. Mark Sills, executive director of Faith Action International House in Greensboro. “The fear there is that the county is generating profits by housing undocumented immigrants. This creates a profit incentive for them to arrest immigrants. Folks are literally afraid to drive down the street for fear they will be profiled in a racial manner and arrested.”

Randy Jones, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office spokesman and a veteran lawman who retired from the Burlington Police Department in 2003, is used to such criticism. If the county jail were looking for warm bodies to bring revenue into the sheriff’s office they could find plenty of other sources besides the federal immigration authorities, he argues.

“The fact is, if we could open a five hundred-bed facility today we could fill five hundred beds today,” he says. “We could lease it to the federal marshal service. We could lease it to immigration. We could lease it to state law enforcement…. Bed space is at such a premium. We’re holding some of Sheriff Barnes’ inmates now on a cost basis. We’ve got ’em coming in from other counties. We’ve got a waiting list.”

Like other officials from agencies participating 287(g), Jones vigorously denies that racial profiling plays a role in the program.

“There’s going to be no roundups, no profiling, no checking ID cards,” he says. “This program targets the criminal illegal aliens.” He adds: “Honest, hard-working people shouldn’t worry. The ones we’re looking to deport are the ones who victimize people that are in their own community.”

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office poses two questions to inmates suspected of immigration violations: “Are you a citizen of the United States?” and, “Were you born in the United States?” A negative response will lead to the inmate’s fingerprints being submitted to the federal immigration database.

Jones says those are questions deputies with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office already ask on occasion.

“In any type of regular field contact we may ask those questions now,” he says. “If I stop you and you have a California ID and a California drivers license, I may ask you. If it appears that you are a person that is non-English speaking, I think common sense would tell you that this would be a person to run through the ICE database.”

Law enforcement advocates for 287(g) stress that a crime must be committed in addition to the civil violation of being in the country illegally to trigger the process. Without the ICE partnership, they say, undocumented immigrants arrested for misdemeanors can give aliases, post bond and fail to show up for court. They argue that the 287(g) program allows them to detain undocumented immigrants who would otherwise go free until the federal authorities make arrangements to deport them.

Marisol Jimenez-McGee, advocacy director for El Pueblo in Raleigh, suggests that the local law enforcement agencies partnering with ICE are dancing around the issue of skin color.

“What does an undocumented immigrant look like anyway?” she asks. “What becomes the factor that allows a local law enforcement officer to ask about citizenship and country of origin? How are they making the decision when to use this system and when to not use the system? We are watching this play out. How is this being implemented? I think there is an elevated risk for racial profiling in this type of program.”

Faith Action’s Sills says he received a phone call from interim Chief Tim Bellamy assuring him that the Greensboro Police Department has no plans to pursue immigration violations. Nancy Lindemeyer, a spokeswoman for the police department, referred questions to Capt. Gary Hastings, commander of criminal investigations. Hastings did not return calls seeking comment on the department’s decision to not participate in 287(g).

According to 2005 Census estimates, Hispanics now comprise 5.7 percent of Greensboro’s population. The city’s Hispanic and Asian populations respectively increased by 21.5 and 34.6 percent between 2000 and 2005, while the number of whites and African Americans declined over the same period. Greensboro’s foreign-born population increased by 35.0 percent, from 18,146 to 24,491, during those years – a period of overall demographic decline for the city.

It’s impossible to pinpoint what percentage of Hispanic and foreign-born residents are in Greensboro illegally, but many urban law enforcement agencies across the country find themselves relying on the trust of undocumented immigrants to effectively police their communities.

The president of the International Association of Police Chiefs declared in 2004 that his organization “opposes any plan that would coerce local and state law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws without their approval,” adding that “many leaders in the law enforcement community have serious concerns about the chilling effect any measure of this nature would have on legal and illegal aliens reporting criminal activity or assisting police in criminal investigations.”

Jimenez-McGee points to a specific and troubling example.

“Imagine that you are a victim of domestic violence and you want to call for help,” she says. “Are you going to call police officers when you fear that they may begin asking questions about your immigration status, the status of your husband, the status of your children? You’re probably not going to pick up the phone. If he’s the sole breadwinner in your home and all of a sudden he’s just gone then you’re left at home trying to raise your children with no source of income.”

The spokesman for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office would be the first to acknowledge that Hispanics as a group are victimized of more than their share of crimes.

“One thing that we’re convinced of – we know that a lot of it goes unreported,” Randy Jones says, recalling an incident involving an African-American suspect that took place when he was with the Burlington Police Department. “We arrested an individual doing home invasions. He began cooperating with us. He gave us a statement about a location [of] the house, everything. He told us they broke into the house, pistol-whipped the father and gang-raped a teenage girl.

“We went out and tried to interview the family,” he continues. “They denied it ’til the day they left town. We knew it happened and had a confession, but we couldn’t do anything about it.”

A study by YES! Weekly indicates that Hispanics may also be overrepresented as victims of crime in Greensboro. A review of incident reports published by the Greensboro Police Department in which the race or ethnicity of the victims was identified found that from October 2006 through January 2007 a quarter of victims were Hispanics – a rate five times their share of the population. African Americans – who make up 38.8 percent of the population – were identified as 58.3 percent of victims, while whites – more than half the population – were represented as victims of crime in only 13.9 percent of the sample.

Greensboro police noted three robbery/home invasions in January that included victims with Spanish surnames. Four other incidents were classified as robbery of a person, residential burglary and attempted robbery. In all seven cases the perpetrators were identified as being African Americans, with one crime also including a white perpetrator.

In contrast, crimes in the same month in which African Americans were victimized included a mixture of homicides, armed robberies, assaults, robbery-home invasions, shootings and stabbings. In all seven cases the perpetrators were also identified as being African Americans.

Sheriff Johnson, like other county law enforcement leaders who embrace 287(g), says he expects the program to help his agency combat serious drug-related and violent crime.

“Illegal aliens are a major source of drug trafficking,” he says. “There are the drug traffickers that want to blend in with the rural population. They’re also a major source of gang activity.”

The statistics collected by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office for about 1,300 inmates flagged for deportation from April 7, 2006 through late January 2007 belie the notion that the 287(g) program helps police remove hard-core offenders. Almost 90 percent of Mecklenburg’s deportees were charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies. The top charge was traffic violations, followed by driving while intoxicated. Assaults figured at a distant fourth place, while the category “other” fell in third place. Only 20 of the deportees were identified as aggravated felons.

The largest category of offenders – traffic violators – may actually be primarily guilty of violating immigration law, Jimenez-McGee suggests, because undocumented immigrants have no legitimate means of securing drivers licenses. And in a state where public transportation remains a novel concept in many suburban and rural areas, holding down a job without a vehicle is often out of the question.

“Undocumented immigrants are not able to apply for a drivers license,” she says. “Driving without a license and being pulled over for a traffic offense can quickly become an immigration issue.” Jimenez-McGee’s organization has called for the state to pass legislation allowing the Division of Motor Vehicles to issue drivers licenses to all drivers regardless of immigration status to improve safety on North Carolina’s roadways.

For the law enforcement officers at Mecklenburg County Jail-Central, distinguishing between hard-core felon and hardworking immigrant may be putting too fine a point on their undertaking of arranging one-way flights to destinations such as Miami and El Paso.

“They put themselves in deportation,” Sgt. Stitt says. “Two crimes have been committed. They’re here illegally and they committed a misdemeanor [such as] driving while intoxicated. If they were hardworking and didn’t break any laws they wouldn’t be coming in here.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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