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December 12, 2008
By Matt Tomsic
For many Latinos in North Carolina, the difference between crime victim and criminal is the flick of a deputy’s pen.
Nobody knows that better than Jorge and Jose Segura-Rios.
The two immigrant brothers from Mexico awoke at 2:50 a.m. on Sept. 16, when a group of burglars demanding cash broke into their Knightdale house and beat the brothers with handguns and an assault rifle.
The burglars escaped out the back as Wake County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a panicked 911 call from the house.
The deputies interviewed the victims and left.
Days later, Jorge and Jose were arrested. Jose was charged with common-law uttering after investigators determined he gave them false identification. Jorge, who provided his real name, was taken into custody because of his immigration status. He was quickly deported.
The brothers, who had simply asked the police for help, went from being victims of a crime to being the accused. They were trapped by the federal 287(g) program, which is intended to let local law enforcement officials begin deportation proceedings for undocumented immigrants guilty of felonies, DWIs and other serious crimes.
Instead, some North Carolina counties are using the program to round up and deport thousands of Latino immigrants who have been arrested for minor offenses and who do not have proper documentation.
Law enforcement officers have identified 15,438 immigrants for deportation since the program first came to North Carolina in 2006, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Immigrations and Customs enforcement.
“It seems like the majority of people being held in deportation proceedings are for misdemeanors,” said Irene Godinez, advocacy director for the Latinos’ rights group El Pueblo Inc.
In Mecklenburg County alone, police charged 90 percent of inmates processed through 287(g) with misdemeanors.
Godinez said the program has led to racial profiling and “Gestapo tactics” that law enforcement officers use to harass Latinos.
“Jorge is not guilty of any offense whatsoever,” said Robert E. Nunley, the attorney representing Jose. “But the Wake County Sheriff’s (Office) tricked them. He had no criminal history. He did nothing wrong. He is a true victim of a heinous crime, and it got him deported.”
A failed attempt at prioritization
Nationwide, $54 million was spent on the program during the last fiscal year. In North Carolina, the General Assembly appropriated $750,000 for what they dubbed the Illegal Immigration Project.
Alamance, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Gaston, Henderson, Mecklenburg and Wake county sheriff’s offices and the Durham Police Department participate in 287(g).
“It’s intended to be used for those who are already booked into jail and those who pose the greatest threats to our community,” said Paul Cox, spokesman for U.S. Rep. David Price, who is the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and represents the state’s 4th congressional district.
Cox said law enforcement officers should prioritize the undocumented immigrants who go through 287(g) “in a way that focuses on removing criminal illegal immigrants, those who have been identified as felons and other criminals.”
In North Carolina, Senate Bill 229 reinforces the notion of prioritization. The bill states, “When any person charged with a felony or an impaired driving offense is confined for any period in a county jail … the administrator or other person in charge of the facility shall attempt to determine if the prisoner is a legal resident of the United States.”
But increasingly, the program has strayed from its focus on DWIs and felonies, as more and more Latinos are arrested and deported for committing lesser offenses or no offenses at all.
Duke graduate student Dan Kight studied 287(g) in Mecklenburg, Gaston and Alamance counties.
His 2008 study found two major trends. In Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, misdemeanors consistently were the charges that led to the arrest of those processed through the federal program. In Alamance County, 82 percent of immigrants processed through 287(g) were charged with misdemeanors.
Traffic offenses, not including DWI, make up the largest percentage of initial charges in all three counties.
County sheriff’s departments’ data secured for this article confirm Kight’s findings.
From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2008, Alamance, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Mecklenburg and Wake counties processed a total of 3,266 immigrants through 287(g). More than half of those processed were arrested in Mecklenburg County.
For those same counties, traffic offenses, not including DWI, brought more 287(g) inmates to jail than any other offense, accounting for 28 percent of the total charges.
More recent data from Mecklenburg County was available from the months after Kight’s report. Since the program’s start there in April 2006, the sheriff’s office has processed 5,390 inmates. Traffic offenses, not including DWI, accounted for 30 percent of the total charges, the most of any charge.
Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison said the numbers are skewed toward traffic offenses because often illegal immigrants do not have the documents to ensure an officer that they will show up for their court date. After stopping someone, the officer uses his discretion whether or not to arrest the individual.
“It’s frustrating for me to sit here and listen to the people say, ‘You’re racial profiling’ or ‘Why do you take them to jail for no driver’s license?’ Well, we’re not really taking them to jail for no driver’s license, it’s just a fact that we don’t know who that person is or if that person is coming to court,” Harrison said.
Sound and fury
The debate over the federal program is a snapshot of a larger immigration debate raging in North Carolina.
“The program is completely caught up in this anti-immigrant, racist backlash against Latinos,” said Mark Dorosin, senior attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
Public opinion has continued to turn against immigrants as more Latinos have moved to the state.
A 2006 study by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School found that documented and undocumented Latinos accounted for 27.5 percent of the state’s population growth from 1990 to 2004. The demographic has a spending impact of $9.2 billion in North Carolina and pays $756 million in taxes.
Latinos make up 7 percent of the state’s workforce. Twenty-nine percent of construction work could not be done without Latino workers.
Despite the demographic’s positive impacts on the state, the 287(g) program has wide support in the state.
As first reported by The News & Observer, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell criticized illegal immigrants in a story published Sept. 7. Bizzell portrayed the immigrants as drunk drivers and criminals, saying they were “trashy” and “breed like rabbits.”
Following the publication of his comments, El Pueblo and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, among others, called for the sheriff’s resignation.
But Bizzell continued to generate support from voters, some of whom wrote The News & Observer defending the sheriff. Sylvia Langford, of Knightdale, claimed Bizzell said what many Americans want to say and that “Bizzell need not apologize for anything.”
Johnston County Commissioners also gave their support to Bizzell, even commending him for his work to protect the citizens of the county.
Bizzell remains sheriff in Johnston County until his term ends in 2010.
A climate of fear
Advocacy groups argue that 287(g) alienates the Latino community.
“It really creates this climate of fear, even among those who are not undocumented,” said Dorosin. “There is always the threat of deportation.”
Law-abiding immigrants are afraid their documentation status will be questioned when they go to the police to report crimes, causing a chilling effect on the Latino community. Many Latinos who are questioned through 287(g) about their immigration status are found to be in the country legally. Advocacy groups worry that people with Hispanic last names will be hauled to jail just to have their documentation checked.
The fear of contacting police leaves Hispanic citizens vulnerable to criminals targeting them, and advocacy groups fear that many more Latinos have been targeted and are afraid to come forward.
In one case, police arrested Antoine Jerrod Watkins, 26, and charged him with 17 counts of armed robbery, seven counts of first-degree burglary, four counts of second-degree kidnapping, two counts of attempted armed robbery and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, The News & Observer reported on June 28.
Watkins targeted working-class neighborhoods near downtown Raleigh and is one example that advocacy groups use to say the law needs to be changed.
But little can be done at the state level, other than cutting state funding for the program, a goal state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird is trying to accomplish.
Kinnaird is co-chair of the Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety Committee.
“We’ve given them so much money to do nothing but damage,” she said. “Just hurting people, it’s terrible. I just feel as though the state of North Carolina and sheriffs have no business getting involved in federal issues.”
Kinnaird has little hope of accomplishing her goal.
“I keep reminding people that we’re Christians, to love their neighbor as thyself,” she said. “But they’ve seem to forgotten that when it comes to immigrants.”
On the other side of the argument, Sheriff Harrison thinks the program has been good for Wake County.
“To me, I think it’s going to make this a safer county,” he said.
The program gives sheriff’s offices across the state access to a federal database, which cuts back on the number of criminals who are charged under different names in different counties and opens communication between different law enforcement agencies.
When someone calls 911, the officers don’t gauge their response based on the caller’s documentation status, Harrison said.
“It’s like a Republican or a Democrat, I don’t know who you are, don’t care,” Harrison said. “My job is to protect you and sometimes I think these advocacy groups, because they get paid, they just try to stir up some stuff and make a mound out of a molehill.”
Molehill or not, the 287(g) program as it is used in North Carolina continues to create controversy and continues to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants.
Matt Tomsic is a senior in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.