The Buncombe County Sheriff's Office is pursuing better coordination with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify fugitives, says Sheriff Van Duncan. The office is also stepping up its drug-seizure efforts.
"We used to have a lot of problems identifying prisoners because the FBI's fingerprint systems and ICE's system didn't 'talk' to each other," Duncan said at a Sept. 24 lunch held by the Council of Independent Business Owners. "We had one couple that was wanted for sexual assault under an alias, but we couldn't identify them, and they got out on bail."
Local law enforcement doesn't have the authority to arrest people for immigration violations; only ICE agents can do that, said Duncan, who sits on the eight-member N.C. Sheriffs' Association's ICE steering committee.
The Sheriff's Office doesn't consider foreign nationals' immigration status until they have been arrested and jailed on non-immigration-related charges, whether by its deputies or other local law-enforcement personnel. To prevent fugitives wanted by ICE from slipping through the cracks, Duncan initially wanted to have Buncombe join the 287-G program, which would swear in a number of deputies as part-time ICE agents. However, that program would also require the jail to reserve 50 beds for ICE's use. Five counties in North Carolina, including Henderson County, are part of the 287-G program.
"It's expensive, [and] that was a considerable cost," Duncan said. His office instead decided to go with the Secure Communities initiative, which connects the office to ICE's systems and either turns fugitives over to ICE directly or puts a "hold" on them until ICE can determine their status.
"ICE are the experts," he added. "There's a lot of issues here. Some people entered the country legally — through a work visa — but are here illegally. Immigration law is above even the tax code in complexity. There's a lot of questions about who does or doesn't get deported. We're happy to turn it over to them."
He admitted the department's handling of immigration issues has drawn criticism from multiple sides of the contentious issue.
"Quite frankly, we do get shot at from both sides," Duncan asserted. "We've been criticized by the left side of the issue and [the] Latino advocacy group, because a lot of the people ICE holds in our jail are there for driving offenses: They were driving without documentation, or they failed to appear in court on driving charges, and we issued a warrant for their arrest like we would for anyone else. Well, if ICE is looking at them, there's probably more there than just a driving issue."
But he also said the department gets a lot of criticism from "the other side too, who want us checking everyone's documents. We simply can't do that. Legally, practically — we can't do it."
Out of the roughly 12,000 people the jail has processed this year, 180 have drawn the attention of ICE.
Duncan also spoke about the county's drug-interdiction efforts, noting that a new two-man unit made up of former State Highway Patrol officers is monitoring Interstates 26 and 40 for drug trafficking.
"They look for telltale signs," Duncan said, pointing to several recent high-profile drug seizures, including the largest cocaine bust in the county's history.
When asked by an audience member what those signs are, Duncan demurred.
"Their methods are legal, tried and true," he replied. "The proof is in the pudding. There's definitely a bit of a sixth-sense aspect to it."
He said that cash confiscated during drug seizures — $4 million so far this year — helps fund salaries and equipment, including the high-powered rifles Duncan said are necessary to counter drug gangs' increasing firepower.
"[The seizures] have saved the taxpayer a ton of money," he asserted.