Immigration enforcement in Guilford Co.

by Jordan Green

Speaking in front of a predominantly Hispanic crowd numbering in the hundreds at Iglesia Cristiana International in south Greensboro earlier this month, the Rev. Mark Sills sharply questioned Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes on his agency’s handling of immigration violations.

As executive director of FaithAction International, a nonprofit that provides assistance to Latinos and other immigrants, Sills echoed fears expressed by many at the April 1 forum that Latinos are increasingly being subjected to racial profiling under federal programs that allow local law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of people stopped by the police. “When is it proper for a deputy to question someone’s legal status?” Sills asked the sheriff. “After they have been arrested, after they have been charged and after they have been before a magistrate,” Barnes replied. Sills then reminded Barnes that he had earlier recounted a story about having personally questioned a driver who appeared to be inebriated and Latino about the person’s legal status at a checkpoint set up to deter drunken driving. “It appeared to me that they were Latino,” Barnes confirmed. “Yes, I’ll just tell you straight up: I had questions about whether they were legal or not.” Barnes’ comments underscore concerns by civil libertarians and immigrant advocates about the 287(g) program, to which the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office has a pending application. “287(g) encourages, or at the very least tolerates, racial profiling and baseless stereotyping, resulting in the harassment of local residents and the isolation of an increasingly marginalized community,” a joint report by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Foundation and the Immigration & Human Rights Policy Clinic at UNC- Chapel Hill concluded in February. Sills continued to probe the sheriff for evidence that his deputies might subject Latino motorists to unequal treatment, pressing Barnes for clarification about the basis under which officers might run a person’s name through the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Biometric Identification System database, which holds information about people who have been caught illegally entering the country. “If they have a driver’s license and an insurance card, I’m going to take for granted, and an officer probably will too, that they are here legally,” Barnes said. Sills pressed on: “So anybody here who has a legitimate North Carolina driver’s license or a legitimate driver’s license from another state does not need to worry about being run through the database if they are arrested?” he asked. “If they go through our jail and there is any doubt then they may well be put through that database,” Barnes replied. “What would constitute doubt?” Sills asked. “What factors would tell you, if they have this driver’s license and insurance card, then what would constitute doubt?” “I can’t speak in ambiguity like that,” the sheriff replied, before being drowned out by derisive laughter from the audience. Sills finally relented on his interrogation. “You see,” the pastor told the sheriff, “it just feels like there’s a difference, like if you’re white and speaking English, you don’t have to worry about these things, but if you’re a person of color and you’re speaking with a foreign accent then maybe there’s going to be some question about whether your documents are valid. After all, it’s not that hard to get documents that really look real and may really be real. So I’m just concerned about how you’re going to have these doubts, for some people to be put through the database and other people to not be put through the database. And if that’s the case, are you not on very thin ice concerning federal laws concerning racial profiling?” For the record, Barnes said in an interview on Monday: “Racial profiling no matter what or where is wrong; it should not occur.” As public outrage has exploded in recent years about people illegally crossing the border, mainly from Mexico and Central America, to work in the United States, local law enforcement agencies have clamored to sign up for 287(g), with the program spending ballooning from $5 million in 2006 to $54.1 million this year. In 2007, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s 287(g) application got held up, and Barnes held a meeting n his office with sheriffs across the state. They enlisted the support of then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who persuaded Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to give the sheriffs access to the database prior to being accepted in the 287(g) program. Many of the sheriffs subsequently appeared in a tough-talking television advertisement supporting Dole’s reelection. Meanwhile, concerns about racial profiling have grown with the program. A recent US Government Accountability Office report found that more than half of the 29 local law enforcement agencies participating in the program reported that community members raised concerns that use of 287(g) authority would lead to racial profiling and intimidation by law enforcement. The National Immigration Law Center in Washington questioned how ICE ensures that police do not make arrests based on racial or ethnic profiling, and do not make arrests simply as a pretext to check immigration status in a report released last month. “ICE fact sheets and press releases do not even indicate a recognition of this issue or a concern that it might occur,” the report states. “Complaints of racial/ethnic profiling and pre-textual arrests have been common under the 287(g) program.” Panelists at the April 1 forum also expressed concern that the 287(g)program would discourage Latinos from reporting crimes, particularly ifa witness or a spouse accused of domestic abuse were residing inGreensboro or Guilford County illegally. “It’s just like thewoman who talked to me on Monday night,” Sills told Barnes. “She saw acrime occur. She saw them rob someone at gunpoint. She could givetestimony if she was willing to. But we had to advise her not to callbecause she was in the county, and your public statements have createdenough fear that we were really afraid that if she came forth she wouldget deported.” “The problem with that, doctor, is that personcan rob and shoot you,” Barnes responded, “and will rob again andvictimize others.” “Clearly,” Sills rejoined. “Public safetyis undermined.” Barnes acknowledged an incident that took place abouttwo years ago in which a woman suspected of being undocumented refusedto talk about a crime she had witnessed, and subsequently disappeared. “Thatparticular incident that you talked about, about the woman, was anactual occurrence,” he said. “Basically what it amounted to, there wasa shooting. The woman who was there who witnessed it did not want totalk, did not have anything to say. She was not arrested, not heldover. It was suspected she may be illegal. Anyway, for whatever reason,she disappeared the next day. We don’t know what happened to her orwhatever, but we ended up having to investigate the case as it involvedthe shooting without that witness.” In a subsequent interview,Barnes categorically stated that no one from his agency reported thewoman to ICE, leading to her deportation. “The only time wepass on any type of information to ICE is when the person is underarrest and does not have documentation,” he said. Barnes has said thatthe Guilford County Sheriff’s Office had identified 47 inmates in itsdetention centers as being undocumented. He added that he is stillwaiting to receive a memorandum of understanding from ICE to formallylaunch the 287(g) program. The sheriff said that the reasonfor signing up for 287(g) is not so that the sheriff’s office canidentify detainees who are in the United States; his agency is alreadyrequired to do that. Rather, he wants to speed up the process ofidentifying and processing undocumented offenders. NorthCarolina law requires administrators of county jails and other localconfinement facilities to determine whether a prisoner is a legalresident by questioning or checking documents, and failing that, toquery ICE, which automatically notifies the federal agency of the localprisoner’s whereabouts. The 2007 bill that created the law wassponsored by Sen. Julia Boseman (D-New Hanover), and went into effectin 2008. Only one House member, Rep. Paul Luebke (D- Durham), opposedthe bill, and the Senate motion to concur passed unanimously. “Becausewe can find out that information, as you can see by the fact that we’veidentified 47 who are not legal, but with 287(g) we can do it in amatter of moments,” the sheriff told those attending the forum. “If wedo not have 287(g) then that person may be held in jail longer while wewait for that identification to come through. If we can pull up thatinformation in a matter of moments instead of days, it benefits notonly us to make sure we’re doing what we need to do, but it alsoassists the person who has been arrested to show them the documentationis here, that they are not illegal.” Barnes expressed ameasure of sympathy for the plight of undocumented immigrants inGuilford County, whose families can be broken up when a parent issuddenly deported after getting arrested. “People do not wantto be deported, do not want to go through this,” he said. “And I canwell understand that. And I was asked a very impassioned question by ayoung lady, who asked, ‘What happens to the children in situations likethat?’ These are very real problems, ones that we understand are veryreal concerns.” Later Barnes said, “I think the federalgovernment is going to have to have some kind of amnesty program….There is no way in the world we can arrest all these people.” Stilllater, the sheriff added, “These folks who are here who areundocumented do great service to the community.” Panelists and audiencemembers also raised concerns that the 287(g) program leads to thedeportation of people arrested for minor offenses. The NCSheriff’s Association reported last year that 33 percent of theoffenses committed by the 3,182 people in deportation proceedings afterbeing arrested by agencies participating in the 287(g) program weretraffic violations, while 44 percent were charged with criminalviolations ranging from murder to trespassing, and 23 percent werecharged with impaired driving. “I have immigrant clients injail right now who were picked up for minor traffic violations,” saidMarty Rosenbluth, an immigration lawyer based in Durham. “Whatguarantee do you have that 287(g) is going to be used for the purposeit was intended, which is apprehending serious criminals rather thandeporting people for minor offenses.” Local sheriffs could beforgiven for any confusion about the purpose of 287(g). The GovernmentAccountability Office faulted ICE in January for not clarifying thatpoint. “ICE officials stated that the objective of the programis to address serious crime, such as narcotics smuggling committed byremovable aliens; however ICE has not documented this objective inprogram materials,” the report said, adding that some local lawenforcement agencies “used 287(g) authority to process individuals forminor crimes, such as speeding, contrary to the objective of theprogram.” The report also states that, although the detaineesare only supposed to be processed for deportation “in connection with aconviction of a state or federal offense,” that matter is onlymentioned in seven out of 29 memoranda of agreement between ICE andlocal law enforcement agencies. Barnes said that veryambiguity is why he has not yet signed a memorandum of understandingwith ICE. He said the federal government has asked the Guilford CountySheriff’s Office to use 287(g) authority specifically in areas whereLatinos congregate and question people in the field about theirimmigration status — which he would not be comfortable with. “Theissues we’ve got is that US ICE out of Washington wanted somethingdifferent,” Barnes said. “That’s why it hasn’t happened. I want to makesure it’s fair and equitable across the board. I’m not going tooverextend myself. As far as what we will look for and what it willcover, this is not a witch hunt; it’s not a fishing expedition.” Whileimmigrant advocates cite the hardship on families when an adult isdetained and deported for committing a minor offense, the GAO reportsuggests the program could also strain the network of detentioncenters. “While participating agencies are not prohibited fromseeking the assistance of ICE for aliens arrested for minor offenses,if all the participating agencies used their 287(g) authority toprocess for removal aliens who have committed minor offenses, ICE wouldnot have the detention space to detain all the aliens referred tothem,” the report states. Citing an Associated Press reportthat found that 19,000 of 32,000 immigrants held in ICE detentioncenters, many of them private, have not been convicted of a crime,Sills said after the forum: “This is exactly like the old thing inAlabama and Mississippi when the farmer, the mine owner says, ‘I needfifty niggers to harvest the crops and haul out the coal,’ and thesheriff would go arrest 50 black people. There was no 287(g) programbefore there were these private, for-profit detention centers.” Thereport released by the ACLU of North Carolina and UNC-Chapel Hillcondemned the program, stating, “287(g) is utilized not as a tool toaid law enforcement, but instead as a localized immigration weapon andtool for intimidation of foreign nationals and Hispanic residents andcitizens.” The report cited a 2007 interview with AlamanceCounty Sheriff Terry Johnson by anti-illegal immigration activist JeffRawls to support its contention that 287(g) is often motivated byprejudice against Latinos rather than genuine desire to apprehendserious criminals. Johnson reportedly told Rawls: “Being aresident of Alamance County, I’ve seen a massive change in thepopulation of the county which is automatically overburdening thetaxpayers. And I began to notice… that a large amount of ourpopulation… was in fact foreignborn, illegal, criminal immigrants whohad come to settle in Alamance County… and that our services that were…supposed to be providing to our taxpaying citizens were being cut shortsimply because we had to be responding to a lot of criminal, illegalimmigrants here in Alamance County.” Close to the end of theApril 1 forum in Greensboro, the Rev. Sills asked Sheriff Barnes if hewould be willing to have a citizen review committee oversee theGuilford County 287(g) program. “Doctor, with what we’reseeing here and the concerns of the community,” Barnes replied, “Idon’t think that’ would be a bad idea at all.”

Greensboro immigration lawyer Gerry Chapman (left) questionsGuilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes and Greensboro police Chief TimBellamy (right) during an April 1 forum on the 287(g) program that washeld at Iglesia Cristiana International. (photo by Jordan Green)