Chatham Commissioners to put resolution about undocumented immigrants on ice

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Chatham County Commissioners on Monday plan to rescind a two-year-old resolution that critics say will hurt relations between undocumented immigrants and police.

In 2009, the previous board of commissioners, then dominated by Democrats, adopted a resolution acknowledging that undocumented immigrants live in and contribute to their communities:

"Chatham County is home to a diverse population — including people of color, documented and undocumented immigrants, citizens and noncitizens — whose contributions to the community are vital to its character and function; and whereas the Board of Commissioners is committed to upholding the civil rights of all persons in Chatham County and to protecting the enjoyment of any and all rights and privileges secured by the constitutions and laws of the United States.”

Commission Chairman Brian Bock, a Republican, said that the current board feels the language in the resolution discouraged local police and sheriff’s departments from entering into any future agreements with state or federal law enforcement.

"The original resolution was too broad," he said, "and we have this opinion sitting out there, that does not reflect the current board's opinions, and that is why we have decided to rescind it."

Activists fear that by abandoning this resolution, the commissioners will send not only a symbolic message that undocumented immigrants are unwelcome in Chatham, but they also will create a hostile climate for them.

Chatham Immigration Action Alert, a citizens’ group, is urging citizens and immigrants to speak out in disapproval of the commissioners’ plan to rescind the resolution.

“As a community, we worked hard to create and defend the original ICE Resolution,” writes Chatham Immigration Action Alert organizer Ilana Dubester, who is originally from Brazil and has lived in Chatham County for 20 years. “Is this in the best interest of our county’s inhabitants and businesses?”

At a May 16 commissioners meeting, Dubester, who also serves on the county’s Human Relations Commission, told the board that “all immigrants, including the undocumented, pay their share in taxes and contribute to the wealth of our state. Immigrants cannot be neatly divided into the so-called good immigrants with papers and bad immigrants without.

“Most families have mixed status—some members are documented while others are not,” she continued. “Resolutions that target the undocumented inevitably impact legal immigrants. Words matter. When Chatham leaders in the past voiced their hostility toward the undocumented, David Duke came marching into town. Collaboration with ICE is bad for public safety and bad for the economy.”

Chatham County is not enrolled in the 287 (g) program, which allows local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. However, like all of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Chatham does participate in the Secure Communities program. It permits local law enforcement to determine the immigration status of people who have been arrested—even for minor violations and even if they are later found not guilty of a crime.

However, the Secure Communities program has serious consequences for law enforcement and crime reporting. Many undocumented immigrants are reluctant to report crimes—either as victims or witnesses—because they are afraid of being deported if they contact the police.

Bock says that numerous people have assumed that the 2009 resolution made Chatham a "sanctuary county" for undocumented immigrants. "The first resolution sent a message that we would not enforce the laws—specifically in regards to illegal immigrants," he said, "but we encourage and support our local law enforcement officers to do their job of enforcing laws where it is feasible and legal, and it is not for us to get in their way."

Several anti-immigrant groups such as the Raleigh-based ALI-PAC (Americans for Legal Immigration) use the term “sanctuary” to describe a city or county that they say doesn’t adequately enforce immigration laws. On its website, ALI-PAC criticized Chatham’s previous resolution, stating “this will make Chatham County our state’s lone ‘Sanctuary County’ and at a time when we have made a lot of progress getting many other counties into the 287 (g) program.”

Chatham County Sheriff Richard Webster said the commissioners’ decision won’t change how he runs his department. If commissioners rescind the resolution, Chatham County does not have the jail space to enroll in the 287(g) program.

"I appreciate the expression of both boards, but the resolution is non-binding on what we do here at the Chatham County Sheriff's Office," said Webster. "That's an important concept for people to understand. It's not an ordinance or a law, but a suggestion, and at the end of the day my staff and I must abide by the law. We have and will continue to treat people with dignity and respect, no matter who they are or where they are from.

The commissioners are scheduled to rescind the resolution Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m. at the Chatham County Cooperative Extension Auditorium in downtown Pittsboro.

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