Sound the alarm: Chatham County is now "ground zero invasion central for North Carolina," according to the president of a Raleigh-based anti-immigration group. The comment and others that compared Chatham to the Soviet Union, and human rights activists to "foot soldiers" in a war for illegal immigration—came from William Gheen, head of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC), while speaking at a rally last week in Pittsboro.
Gheen was in town to denounce a resolution the Chatham County Commissioners signed in January opposing any county participation in a voluntary federal immigration enforcement program, 287(g), that commissioners say has not proved effective in deterring crime.
"Chatham County just sent up a big flag across the state. They're probably reporting on this in the Spanish media in Central and South America right now," Gheen told onlookers and members of Chatham Conservative Voice, who hosted the meeting. The group is affiliated with Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group that promotes limited government.
CCV founder Heather Johnson said she invited Gheen to speak at the "emergency meeting," which drew roughly 30 people, because he "knows what the laws are" and could provide her group with "guidance for beginning organization on this issue."
Gheen, a former legislative assistant to state Sen. Hugh Webster with no legal experience, portrays himself as a crusader against illegal immigration and credits himself for convincing Wake County to enter into the 287(g) program, which marshals sheriff's deputies to detain illegal immigrants and process them for deportation.
In an interview, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said Gheen was one of many people who called to suggest Wake County enter into the 287(g) program, but that he "was not the driving force" behind the county's decision, which took effect in July 2008.
In his speech, Gheen artfully spun human-rights activists as "racists"—because they identify racist elements in anti-immigration rhetoric—and told the crowd, and a video camera that he spoke to directly, that he was an "equal opportunity deporter" who is "quite qualified" to speak about civil rights, because he grew up during the Civil Rights era.
He led the group in several fill-in-the-blank exercises deriding his opponents. ("The La Raza groups are suggesting that certain laws should not be enforced against certain people because of their ethnicity, and that is ...?" "Racist!")
"La Raza" is a historical term loosely translated to "the people" and used by the Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza. The term is often maligned to mean "the race," and Gheen regularly uses it on his Web site.
George Lucier, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, said that such rhetoric distracts from Chatham's efforts to prevent crime and entrust the public to law-enforcement agencies and government.
"You can find isolated examples of individuals doing something, who might have been an illegal immigrant, and say, 'Well, this is because you didn't participate in ICE.' But the overall effect is that ICE does not prevent crimes," Lucier told the Indy.
The commission's resolution, which holds no force of law, states that human rights abuses including racial profiling, separating children from parents, and "conducting raids that instill fears in the minds and hearts of a portion of the immigration population" could result from entering into 287(g); the program, commissioners said, could also undercut the county's crime-prevention programs.
CCV founder Johnson said she was offended by the resolution. "There are appeals to family members that are separated when—I guess you would say—American citizens who are here, who are criminals, who commit crimes ... also are separated from their families. To suggest that we're not being compassionate because we want to see our laws enforced is just disingenuous," she told the Indy.
The resolution was announced in a public agenda and, as is standard protocol, citizens were not asked to vote on it, because it is not legally binding.
Nevertheless, Johnson said she was ready for a "fight." Gheen suggested the crowd may need to resort to vigilante action if the board doesn't reverse its opinion.
"You're going to have to locate these families, and you're going to have to determine that an illegal alien is involved, and then determine if they've been in and out of jail," he said. "You've got to locate these people. You're going to have to find their victims, and ask them to speak out—and it might be somebody in this room. It might be you, or someone you love."
Lucier said he has already received hateful e-mails with similar rhetoric, implying his family should be harmed by a criminal who is undocumented, to prove a point.
"They're meant to reach just to the edge of the law of what would be legal, in terms of hate crimes," he said of the letters. "And that's what the folks at CCV are promoting."