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A County Sheriff’s Election in North Carolina Has Become a Referendum on ICE’s Deportation Machine

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The Trump era has been breathing new life into often dormant local politics — and the president’s crackdown on immigrants, in particular, has made resistance to federal immigration enforcement a central issue in some municipal elections.

As the increasingly aggressive tactics of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have come under scrutiny, the question of whether local police should help ICE deport people has taken on new importance in local races. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where residents are heading to the polls next month to choose a sheriff, the question has made the previously obscure 287(g) program a central issue in the campaigns of the incumbent sheriff, who embraced it, and his two challengers, who want to end it.

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Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows local law enforcement agencies to form voluntary partnerships with the federal government to enforce immigration law. Agencies that sign up receive delegate authority to ask people booked into local custody about their immigration status and to hold undocumented individuals for ICE. But 287(g) has been mired in controversy ever since it started in 1996 — in some places leading to sweeping racial profiling and in many others putting a huge drain on local law enforcement resources and damaging police relationships with the communities they serve.

An array of community groups in the Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, have come together to make sure this election marks the end of the controversial policy. “The current sheriff has said that he believes the program is helping the community, keeping it safe, and he’s not willing to end it,” said Oliver Merino, an organizer with Comunidad Colectiva, one of the groups fighting the county’s participation in 287(g). “We feel like the best way to get rid of the program is to get a new sheriff, somebody that understands that the program is not working.”

Since 2006, when Charlotte signed on to the program, more than 15,000 people have been detained by the sheriff’s department and processed for deportation — many over minor infractions and traffic violations like driving without a license, which undocumented people can’t legally obtain in North Carolina. In fiscal year 2017, there were more than 1,300 “encounters” through the county’s 287(g) program, leading to 288 deportations, according to an ICE spokesperson. In March, 45 groups signed a letter calling on incumbent Sheriff Irwin Carmichael to terminate the county’s participation in the program.

“While your office continues to highlight a handful of cases of individuals with serious crimes, the fact is that a great majority of deportations under the 287(g) program are due to minor offenses,” the letter states, listing the stories of local residents seized and deported as a result of the program. “The sheriff’s office is deporting fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, disrupting and separating families in the process.”

Carmichael told The Intercept that there was misinformation “being put out there about the program,” and released a video discussing 287(g). “A lot of folks always say that we are ripping families apart. Again, I always tell everyone, you will never ever encounter this program unless you’re arrested and charged with a crime and brought to our jail,” Carmichael told Fox News in March. “We use this as a tool to identify exactly who we have. … Maybe they’re from a foreign country and maybe they committed murder in a foreign country.”

Challenger Garry McFadden told The Intercept that if elected sheriff, he will discontinue the agreement. “287(g) often hindered and complicated my investigations,” the former homicide detective said. “Both the witnesses and victims did not want to come forward to cooperate with the investigation. 287(g) does not create a trusted working relationship between law enforcement and many of the community.” Antoine Ensley, who ran for sheriff twice before with opposition to the program as a central component of his platform, told The Intercept that he has long argued 287(g) needs to be “dismantled.” “I still believe it to be very bad for Mecklenburg County,” he said. “I believe a significant amount of the public now recognize how divisive and unnecessary this policy is to the business of public safety.”

The Democratic primary is on May 8 — but with no Republican challenger, the winner of the primary will be the new sheriff. Early voting is currently underway.

Charlotte is one of the country’s most segregated cities, and one of its most diverse — with fast-growing Latino and Asian populations. Nearly one in six city residents was born abroad. While North Carolina is a major destination for new immigrants, Charlotte is also home to large communities of Southeast Asian immigrants who moved to the U.S. following wars in the region in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, many were resettled in poor neighborhoods without much support, and some were caught up in the criminal justice system, which, decades later, can put their legal immigration status at risk.

“Now, 20, 30 years later, these folks are being pulled out of their families to be sent to countries that they sometimes never lived in,” Cat Bao Le, executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition in Charlotte, told The Intercept. “It’s a different path, but if you look at the roots, it’s the same as what other communities are facing. It’s over-policing in our neighborhoods that created this.”

“It’s up to us to move beyond the thinking that this is just an issue for this community or that community,” she added, noting that the fight over 287(g) brought a range of Charlotte groups together, some for the first time. “We have a critical mass if we identify what can bring us together.”

Charlotte is also home to a large black population all too familiar with failed police policies, and the city is in the midst of a political reawakening following the 2016 police killing of Keith Lamont Scott and the large protests that ensued. Those street protests have turned into civic engagement and increased scrutiny of local law enforcement. Advocates calling for an end to 287(g) also criticized Sheriff Carmichael’s practice of placing teenagers in solitary confinement, and his decision to replace in-person jail visits with video visitation.

“We are a very different city,” said Braxton Winston, a protester-turned-Charlotte City Council member following what people there call the Charlotte uprising. “In terms of who is literally at the table — I’m a prime example of that, but there are so many others whose voices would not have been there at certain points in time.”

Today, Winston is one of those leading the charge against the county’s participation in 287(g). “It’s a really bad policy,” he told The Intercept. “When you look at the intent and the cost, not in terms of dollars but harm done to the community, I think it’s pretty clear.” In a city struggling to improve police-community relations, he added, “the relationship is the main part of it. You have to be able to form some kind of trust.”

“I think a lot of people do believe that we need comprehensive immigration reform — but this is one of these polices that the federal government have put out there to get a result in place of that reform.”

President Donald Trump signs four executive orders during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security with Vice President Mike Pence, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and other officials on Jan. 25, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via CNP/AP Images

Charlotte’s debate over 287(g) is hardly isolated — depending on local officials’ embrace or rejection of Trump’s immigration policies, cities and counties across the country have been both eagerly signing up and fighting to leave the program.

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order instructing the Department of Homeland Security to pursue new 287(g) agreements, and last July, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan pledged to “triple” the number of agreements by the end of the year. Of the 76 agreements currently in place, 47 were signed after Trump took office, including six that had been approved previously. In fiscal year 2017, nearly 26,000 people nationwide were processed as part of the program, according to ICE, with nearly 6,000 ultimately deported.

But some agreements have been terminated — at least 35 over the last 10 years, according to a review of the program by the Center for American Progress. Some agreements were called off by ICE itself — as was the case in Maricopa County, Arizona, where a Justice Department investigation found that the local sheriff’s department, under then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, engaged in systemic and unconstitutional racial profiling of Latinos. ICE also called off its partnership with Alamance County in North Carolina after the Justice Department found similar patterns there.

Trump’s election, and the all-out attack on immigrants unleashed by his administration, also prompted others to reconsider their ties. At least three agreements have been terminated since Trump took office. In February 2017, the sheriff of Harris County, Texas, ended his department’s agreement with ICE, citing the program’s impact on the department’s resources. In March 2018, New Jersey’s Hudson County withdrew from the program following pressure from the local community, and in California, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department called off its 287(g) agreement after the state passed legislation setting limits on local agencies’ collaboration with federal immigration enforcement.

An ICE spokesperson told The Intercept that 287(g) is an “invaluable tool that allows ICE to have a presence in local jails across the country.” “ICE continues to conduct outreach to educate local law enforcement agencies about the program and identify new potential partners,” the spokesperson added.

Following Hudson County’s withdrawal from the program, John Tsoukairis, field office director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in Newark, said that he regretted “the loss of such a strong public safety partnership.” “I find this decision troubling, as the security needs of citizens should be the priority, not sheltering criminal aliens,” Tsoukairis said in a statement.

“Particularly after the Trump administration came into power, there was a real sense from local communities that this was wrong, ICE is wrong, and that local communities, in order to feel safe, at the bare minimum need their local police to work and protect them rather than do ICE’s dirty work,” said Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “People are waking up and trying to end these collaborations. Unfortunately, we’re also seeing that in places that are anti-immigrant and want to follow Trump’s deportation agenda and go after people of color, they’re signing up very happily to the program.”

“You’re seeing places like Charlotte, where they’re going through a criminal justice, racial justice reckoning, wanting to end police deputization as immigration agents,” she told The Intercept. “There are also places like southeast Georgia, and southern to northern Texas, that are wanting to join the program having never heard of it until the Trump administration.”

In some states, mostly in the south, local law enforcement “is a gigantic funnel for ICE’s and Trump’s deportation machine,” Mao added, pointing to a study that found that in the first four months of the Trump administration, immigration arrests were up 75 percent for the ICE Atlanta field office, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas. In those states, the number of immigrants arrested who had no criminal convictions increased by 500 percent, according to the study.

“Basically, people’s solution was not to leave their house, that was pretty much the only thing they could do,” said Mao, adding that a number of arrests were made during traffic stops. “Or just be very afraid and basically drive at the risk of being deported.”

Ending 287(g) alone won’t ease people’s fears, Charlotte advocates say, but it’s a more practical approach to the sometimes-vague notion of sanctuary some have called for elsewhere. “The term doesn’t really mean a lot. What does it mean?” said Merino, of Comunidad Colectiva.

“The question for our leaders is: Do they want to keep us safe? And do they want to build trust or not?” echoed Bao Le, of Charlotte’s Southeast Asian Coalition. “287(g) is just kind of a symbol for that question.”

Top photo: Protesters march during a rally in support of undocumented immigrants in Charlotte, N.C., on May 1, 2017.

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