On Thursday, the six activists arrested on Oct. 29 for blocking traffic outside of the governor's mansion to protest his signing of House Bill 318—a law expanding E-Verify, forbidding sanctuary cities and restricting what forms of ID immigrants can use—appeared for the first time before a judge at the Wake County Justice Center. It was a perfunctory hearing: They were granted an unsecured bond and given a February court date.
But the activists saw an opportunity to once again draw attention to a law that, in their view, "targets immigrants and low-income people," as Angeline Echeverria, executive director of local nonprofit El Pueblo and one of those arrested, said afterward at a press conference outside the courthouse.
The immigration system has long been "designed to keep out people who aren't American enough, white enough, wealthy enough, educated enough, quiet enough," added Ivanna Gonzalez, another arrestee. "... This bill was designed to pit our communities against one another."
About an hour later, inside the Wake County Detention Center, a similar opportunity presented itself. About a dozen people, including some of those present at the earlier press conference, protested an Immigration and Customs Enforcement forum designed to champion the "success" of a long-controversial partnership between the feds and the Wake County Sheriff's Office. Wake County has employed this program, known as 287(g)—which deputizes participating state and local law enforcement agencies to help deport undocumented immigrants arrested within their jurisdiction—since 2007. (It is one of five North Carolina counties currently participating, the others being Mecklenburg, Gaston, Cabarrus and Henderson.) In 2015, 294 people have been deported from Wake County because of 287(g).
That, to ICE and the sheriff's office, has made Wake County safer. "In my professional opinion," ICE assistant field office director Robert Alfieri said, "287(g) is the single most effective program we've ever worked with."
Even so, it has come under fire elsewhere in the state. In 2012, for example, Alamance County was expelled from the program after the federal government brought a lawsuit—dismissed by a federal judge this past August—accusing the sheriff's office of targeting Latinos. And then in January, Charlotte's Immigration Integration Task Force recommended that its police department nix its relationship with ICE. (A CMPD official told the INDY that the program is actually under the jurisdiction of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.)
And now it's coming under fire here, too. When ICE project manager Edgar Vasquez opened the floor to public comment, Comité Popular Somos Raleigh member Gregorio Morales stood up. Reading from a short prepared statement, Morales said, "Our perception of this program is completely different. You completely decided to doubt the Latino community. You decided not to work for the people's safety. ... Instead, you decided to work on behalf of the private-prison shareholders." After Vasquez's remarks, protesters stood up and marched out of the meeting while chanting, "ICE out of North Carolina!" The ICE officials watched stone-faced.
Morales' comment on prisons referred to the fact that private prison conglomerates have profited from the explosion of immigration detentions owing to this and other programs. ICE is obligated by federal law to "maintain a level" of 34,000 detention beds each year; as the Texas-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership found in a report released earlier this year, private prisons account for 62 percent of these beds.
After the protesters walked out, Vasquez and Alfieri continued to face tough questions about the program's impact on the Latino community. One person said it creates a perception among immigrants that ICE and local law enforcement agencies are the same entity, and this stokes fear that undocumented immigrants may be deported if they call the police.
"It is my commitment not to deport anyone who is not a legitimate threat," Alfieri responded.
While that might be his commitment, the numbers show a different story. In a January 2015 U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo, Secretary Jeh Johnson defined "priority 3 offenders"—undocumented immigrants who've been issued a final order of removal on or after Jan. 1, 2014—as representing the "lowest priority for apprehension and removal." Yet out of the 294 people deported from Wake this year, 51 have been priority 3.