Chatham County residents spilled into the hallway at a county commissioners meeting Monday night in which the board voted 4-1 to rescind a two-year-old resolution that critics say will hurt relations between undocumented immigrants and police. Sally Kost was the lone dissenting vote.
In 2009, the previous board of commissioners, then dominated by Democrats, unanimously adopted a resolution acknowledging that undocumented immigrants live in and contribute to their communities. The resolution went on to ask that local law enforcement decline to enter into agreements with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.
Law enforcement " ... will not take any other actions that might result in racial profiling, increased fear and hostility, civil rights violations and financial and human resources burdens" on local police and sheriff's departments, county documents read.
Commission Chairman Brian Bock, a Republican, said last week that the current board feels the language in the resolution discouraged local police and sheriff's departments from entering into 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."
"The actual meat of that resolution said we are not going to participate in the federal laws," countered Candace Steele, a Pittsboro resident and founder of Chatham County Republican Women. "We are just going to do our own thing."
Kost sees it differently.
"We aren't in the business of enforcing federal law; it's the federal government's responsibility," she said.
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, urged citizens and immigrants to speak out in disapproval of the commissioners' plan to rescind the resolution. Ilana Dubester, a Brazilian immigrant and a 15-year resident of Chatham County, asked members of the crowd to stand if they believe in fairness for immigrants and the environment. (The commission also voted to dismantle the county's environmental review board.) All but 10 of the 120 people rose to their feet.
"Today is a sad day for those of us who care about justice and fairness for all Chatham residents," Dubester told the commission. "It has become evident to me that no matter what we say, this board's slim majority is intent on carrying out a public policy that is guided by rhetoric and fear instead of the needs and realities of our community."
Chatham County is not enrolled in the voluntary 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. A 2010 Inspector General report sharply criticized 287(g) because there are no safeguards to protect undocumented immigrants from racial profiling and other civil rights violations.
However, like all of North Carolina's 100 counties, Chatham does participate in the Secure Communities program, which is mandated by the federal government. Under Secure Communities, local law enforcement determines 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 said last week 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 ALIPAC (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, ALIPAC 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."
Gina Dye, wife of Randy Dye, who runs the blog Randy's Right, grew up in a Los Angeles suburb where, she said, liberal policies led to it becoming "a haven for illegal aliens, many of which were gang members."
She said she fears the county will become "just like El Monte, Calif. We already see evidence of it happening in Siler City, where violence and gangs are taking over what was once a nice, safe small town."
Siler City does have gangs. The county has received grants to try to reduce that activity. However, it is unclear if the gang members are undocumented immigrants or U.S. citizens.
Chatham County Sheriff Richard Webster said the commissioners' decision won't change how he runs his department.
"I appreciate the expression of both boards, but the resolution is nonbinding 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."