Three months after Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez took office and ardently defended a city council resolution blocking police officers from profiling illegal immigrants, he and City Manager Patrick Baker signed an agreement in January allowing the Durham police to enforce federal immigration laws.
The city's Latino community is voicing concern over the move, which makes Durham the fifth jurisdiction in North Carolina to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an arrangement known as a "287g" for the relevant section of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
"The Latino community in Durham was so excited when it found out there was a Latino chief of police," says Irene Godinez, advocacy director of El Pueblo, a statewide organization. "They were trusting there would never be a 287g program. Right now, we are trying to deal with the mess."
Last fall, Latino leaders supported Lopez when he spoke out on the issue of federal immigration in the heat of a contentious mayoral race between Mayor Bill Bell and then-Councilman Thomas Stith. Stith, the challenger, criticized a resolution that prohibited police officers and city employees from probing the immigration status of city residents. Stith postulated the resolution led to Durham's designation as a "sanctuary city," or a city that harbors illegal immigrants.
The chief says the federal agreement should not call into question his support of the city's policy.
"Our involvement with ICE is purely criminal," Lopez says. "The reality is that they are a law enforcement agency of the United States and they work with us. They assist us. We assist them.
"If you don't have it in writing, it would really leave the opportunity for misunderstanding," Lopez says. "This memorandum allows ICE to understand why the Durham police officer is not participating in some of their events."
But some Latino advocates are still uneasy.
"We didn't know about it," says Ivan Parra, lead organizer with Durham CAN, a coalition of community organizations. "After the mayoral campaign, it came as a surprise that such an agreement was even there. To his credit, he made himself available and asked for feedback."
The agreement authorizes one Durham police officer to be trained and certified to process immigration violators. Durham's program is more limited in scope than the programs administered through the sheriff's offices in Gaston, Cabarrus, Alamance and Mecklenburg counties, the only other North Carolina jurisdictions currently participating in the federal program. Gaston's agreement permits 12 officers to be trained; Cabarrus, 10. The Alamance and Mecklenburg County programs have no specified limit on the number of officers that can participate.
Another crucial difference is that other programs in the state are not run by police departments but by sheriffs, the stewards of county jails. Those programs have been used to identify illegal immigrants in jail populations and have led to large numbers of deportations. Mecklenburg County has processed more than 4,100 jail inmates for deportation since April 2006. Gaston County has processed almost 400 since May 2007. Cabarrus County officials refused to turn over their data, and Alamance officials did not return calls by press time.
In Durham, 13 people are being held on detainers, Lopez says. Out of those, three have already been processed for removal. Two have pending federal indictments, two have been deported before, and two are identified gang members who were trafficking narcotics. The charges include trafficking, weapons charges, kidnapping, assault with a gun, homicide, sexual assault and making fraudulent documents. All of the crimes are felonies.
For the other participating counties, partnering with ICE has led to an influx of federal dollars, because ICE pays about $60 a day per inmate for jails detaining illegal immigrants.
Lopez says Durham's cross-trained officer, whom he declined to name, will work only as an investigator.
"We will not be using this investigator to do any workplace investigations or identify people merely for their immigration status," Lopez says. "She has helped in a homicide investigation where we had to track someone down. You have your drug dealers who come through and put up all sorts of bond money. We don't have anybody who can detain them sometimes. We're going to lose them."
He says local ICE officials have already tried to engage the cross-trained investigator in a workplace raid, but she refused, citing city policy against it.
"Prior to her starting, we sat down with her and we were very clear: This is what you can do and cannot do," Lopez says.
Since signing the agreement, Lopez has reached out to formal and informal Latino groups, assuring them he has not gone back on his word.
But Latino advocates have been slow to inform the community at large of Durham's participation in the federal program, for fear of panic.
"The fear for El Pueblo is that when the Latino community finds out there is a 287g program in Durham, it doesn't matter that Durham Police doesn't run the jail system," Godinez says. "What matters is they will have to think about calling the police for fear that they would be sent away like in other counties."
"We don't want to scare people," Parra says. "When something like this gets out, people don't send their kids to school. They don't buy groceries for weeks at a time."
For now, Latino advocates simply hope Lopez keeps his word.
"Durham CAN has a commitment from the police chief to meet regularly with the leadership of the organization," Parra says. "We would like to use those meetings to hold him accountable."
City councilwoman Diane Catotti, who has attended some of the meetings with advocates, says she wants Lopez to brief the council also.
"I will put it on my list of things to talk to the manager about," she says.
Godinez is pushing a more aggressive course of action.
"My suggestion to the chief was that he and the department need to be proactive with how they get this information out there," she says. "He needs to have a press conference with the Latino media and tell them about it in ways that they can feel comfortable. These back-door conversations—you can't hold him accountable."
Lopez notes that he has appeared on Spanish-language radio stations and spoken to reporters at the newspaper Qué Pasa.
"Everybody speaks about transparency," Lopez says. "I cannot be more transparent than I am."