In mid-April, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents staged a flurry of raids throughout Western North Carolina. In Weaverville, Hendersonville, Fletcher and in Buncombe County’s Emma community, ICE agents detained some 15 residents to start the deportation process.
The raids began on April 14. Later that day, hundreds of people took part in a protest in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Asheville. The protest was organized by Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción. The Asheville-based CIMA (formerly known as the Coalición de Organizaciones Latino-Americanas) coordinates the efforts of groups working for immigrants’ rights in WNC.
Local activists and faith leaders, joined by Asheville City Council members Sheneika Smith, Brian Haynes and Vijay Kapoor, tried to piece together exactly what had happened while voicing support for the region’s immigrant communities.
Bruno Hinojosa Ruiz, CIMA’S co-director, described the day as a “moment of panic” for many families. “Right now,” he said, “we don’t even know where people are being held: could be Hendersonville, could be South Carolina, could be Charlotte.”
Minor infractions can trigger deportation
Only six of North Carolina’s 100 counties participate in the federal government’s 287(g) program, which enlists local law enforcement personnel to help implement federal immigration law. Henderson is the only WNC county that takes part in the program.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox of the agency’s Atlanta office stressed that the April raids were at-large operations separate from the 287(g) program. Nonetheless, in the aftermath, the program has come under intense scrutiny from immigrants’ rights activists and community members.
Henderson County opted into the program under Sheriff Rick Davis in 2008; between 1990 and 2006, the local Latino population had increased dramatically. Much of that growth resulted from migrant agricultural workers coming to the area seasonally and then settling here. Today, the county’s more than 10,000 Hispanic residents account for about 10 percent of the population.
Critics say the 287(g) program can lead to racial profiling and overpolicing, even among residents with green cards or American citizenship. Either party to the local ICE agreement is free to rescind it at any time.
According to an ICE fact sheet, however, “Racial profiling is simply not something that will be tolerated, and any indication of racial profiling will be treated with the utmost scrutiny and fully investigated. … In addition to the training these officers receive from their local departments, the 287(g) training includes coursework on multicultural communication and the avoidance of racial profiling.”
Yet for immigrants lacking documentation, even minor infractions can trigger the deportation process.
“Originally, it was a program intended to target aggravated felonies and such crimes,” a man who formerly worked under Davis told Xpress. The man, who’s now with a different sheriff’s office, requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “But then people were included that were brought into the jail for jaywalking or having an expired license. Now you’re talking about people that have been in this country for who knows how many years being separated from their families.
“The reality is that as long as you maintain a 287(g) program, there’s going to be deportations in Henderson County.”
The raw feelings in the wake of the raids were on display at an April 17 forum for county sheriff candidates. Incumbent Charlie McDonald squared off against Republican challenger Lowell Griffin, a captain in the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. No Democrat is running, so the May 8 primary will determine who wins the job.
Before a packed house in Blue Ridge Community College’s Bo Thomas Auditorium, the candidates discussed such issues as arming teachers, building new training facilities and disposing of dead animals. But it was the 287(g) program that sparked the most controversy.
At the outset, moderator Bill Fishburne refused to accept a question asked in Spanish, even after the crowd offered to translate it. That set the stage for a question about outreach to the Latino community.
McDonald cited Spanish-speaking deputies and participation in Day of the Dead festivities as demonstrating his department’s efforts to “be inclusive.” But his assertion that his deputies don’t ask about visas while on duty was met with skepticism by some members of the audience.
Griffin, on the other hand, drew scattered cheers from the mixed crowd when he said: “The Latino community, I don’t think people understand the economic impact they have. There are industries that would fold without these folks, who have become a huge part of our community. We have to earn their trust.”
Nonetheless, Griffin hedged on the question of collaborating with ICE, saying, “I have to look deeply at it. I can’t tell you every part of it, the ins and outs. I will tell you this: I don’t want to use it as a tactic that’s going to intimidate the Latino community that this county relies so heavily on. … The application can be arbitrary at times.”
But McDonald, who’s renewed the program repeatedly since becoming sheriff in 2012, begged to differ. “Obviously, Mr. Griffin doesn’t understand what the 287(g) program is. It has nothing to do with the roundups. … Once somebody is brought into our jail, they’re run through our system to determine if they’re a rapist, a murderer — and that’s what it does.”
The assertion drew boos from a heavily Hispanic corner of the crowd.
“I want to challenge the assumption that it’s arbitrary,” McDonald continued. “It’s not arbitrary: Everybody that comes in gets run through the system.”
That produced more boos and shouts that the sheriff was lying. Latino residents stood up brandishing signs proclaiming “No ICE” and “287g = RACIST” and filed out of the room. One woman shouted that without immigrants there would be no tomatoes, no apples. Other crowd members jeered back. A man yelled: “Arrest them! Arrest them!”
At press time, McDonald had not responded to requests for comment on the walkout. But Maj. Frank Stout, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, told Xpress, “It’s their right to come and right to go as they so choose.”
Climate of fear
Outside the auditorium, the protesters gathered to discuss how to protect community members from deportation. Former CIMA organizer Alan Ramirez scoffed at McDonald’s distancing his department from the recent raids.
“The 287(g) program has been here for 10 years,” he said. “It built the foundation for such a successful raid.”
According to the ICE fact sheet, the program provides “a tremendous benefit to public safety,” helping “local and federal officers … better identify and remove criminal aliens.” By working together, it notes, “Our state and local law enforcement partners have become a force multiplier, allowing ICE to actively engage more officers/agents into ongoing enforcement operations nationwide that require increased manpower.”
But Hunter Ogletree, who heads the Henderson County Public Schools’ Migrant Education Program, was deeply upset by the raids. “This week has been crazy,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Never.”
Cox, however, disputed the idea that the recent raids represented anything unusual. “We make arrests literally every day,” he told Xpress. “The premise that arrests that took place across Western North Carolina were a new thing or something that is not continuing to happen, will continue to happen, would not be correct. ICE has a presence in North Carolina; that is not a new thing.”
The April raids resulted in about 15 arrests, Cox estimated, adding, “We don’t typically track arrests below the field office level.” Community members, though, say there were at least a half-dozen more than that.
Felicia Arriaga, who grew up in Hendersonville, is studying 287(g) programs in North Carolina while pursuing a doctorate in sociology at Duke University. It’s hard to verify the number of deportees reported by ICE, she said, but “the number of people who were picked up in this most recent raid is less than the number that were deported from the jail last year.”
That climate of uncertainty, noted Ramirez, contributes to a generalized anxiety throughout the immigrant community and beyond. Speaking “as a person of color in this country,” he said, “We live with anxiety. We’ve heard ICE may be here till the end of the week, but detainments and deportations have been going on in our community for years now. So this is an opportunity to tell the truth about collaboration between local law enforcement and federal.”
Similar sentiments were expressed on April 25, when ICE and Sheriff’s Office representatives held the program’s annual public meeting at the county courthouse. McDonald did not attend.
Griffin has vivid memories of the hardships faced by the Latino community when he was growing up in Fruitland.
“I was working in a little convenience store in Edneyville — I saw migrant labor come in that were forced to live in substandard conditions,” he told Xpress. “This is back when there were migrant camps here.” Griffin made similar comments during an April 11 meeting of El Centro of Henderson County, a local nonprofit that provides support services to the Latino community.
District Attorney Greg Newman, a former mayor of Hendersonville, also attended the gathering, which was held at the Blue Ridge Community Health Center. “I was never a fan, because I was worried about the fear that it would place in a community,” he said about the collaboration with ICE. “I was mayor when it came in; I was worried about it not being applied evenly. It causes a lot of problems. It also concerned me that there was this thought in the community of ‘OK, let’s round ’em up … and ship ’em to God knows where.’”
George Pappas, an immigration attorney who works with El Centro, left no doubt about how he sees the program, calling it “a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Every single challenge to 287(g) detainment in federal court has knocked it down. It’s unconstitutional.”
Asked about Pappas’ assertion, Cox said, “Different courts have ruled different ways. There is a split in the district courts right now.”
But Pappas also had some words of warning for whoever wins the sheriff’s job: “If you’re sheriff and you try to hold people like this, watch out, because our community of lawyers is going to sue you. Not just you,” he told Griffin; “I said this to Sheriff McDonald as well. If you really want to build trust with the Latino community — with all communities, as you say — then this is how to do it: Get rid of it.”