It was twilight Aug. 6 when Officer Jeff Brown of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission noticed an empty Toyota Pathfinder while patrolling an access road near the Haw River. After inspecting the car and finding no one, Brown walked to the edge of the river access point and saw men casting a fishing net. They had come from Kernersville after having heard of the good fishing to be had in Burlington, one man told him. According to Brown, the men were trying to hide a cooler full of fish as he approached.
Brown asked to see each of their fishing licenses, but no one had one. He then asked for their identification. Among them, all they had were two El Salvadorian ID cards and an expired California driver's license. He arrested the five men—Antonio Ordaz, Jose Ernesto, Javier Jimenez, Edwin Marquez and Juan Aria—who, because they were fishing at the wrong hole at the wrong time, are in custody at the Immigration and Custom Enforcement holding facility in Alamance County Jail, waiting to be deported to their home countries.
The men could have merely been cited, but Brown chose to arrest them.
"We're certified state law enforcement officers, and it's up to an officer's discretion whether to arrest someone," Brown told the Indy. "If a person has no I.D. on them, and you feel that they may not appear in court on you, or that they may not pay the ticket off ... yeah, we do arrest them."
Like most state law enforcement agencies, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission doesn't track how many individuals arrested by their officers end up in ICE custody. Similarly, its officials insist that they don't target any group for arrest.
Within the last two years, N.C. Wildlife officers have checked the licenses of 110,000 anglers. Of those, about 5,000 of them were issued citations. How many of those citations resulted in arrest, the agency couldn't say.
The much-scrutinized 287g section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, adopted by Alamance County last year, allows in-house immigration officers to identify and deport undocumented immigrants who have, for whatever reason, found their way into custody—fishing without a license included. Shortly after their arrival at the jail, the five men arrested by Brown were processed and found to be living in the U.S. illegally.
"It's things like that which are a testament to the fact that 287g isn't working at it was intended," says Rebecca Headen, Racial Justice Project director of the North Carolina ACLU. "It's is a misguided program that takes energy and resources away from regular law enforcement."
Other critics of the 287g program say that the program opens the door to racial profiling, and that it corrodes the relationship between police and the communities they are charged to protect.
Some in law enforcement contend that what some critics of the program are really advocating is a selective application of the law.
"The law has to be fair and equitable, otherwise it doesn't work," posits H.R. "Randy" Jones, spokesperson for the Alamance County Sheriff's Department. "What some people do not seem to understand is that 287g is just a screening program, meaning that you have to be detained and arrested first. What some folks are asking is that we not do our jobs."
The five men detained by Brown represented themselves during their trial last week and pleaded guilty to charges of fishing without a license and possession of fish without an authorized method. In pleading to the charges, they expedited their own deportations.
According to Brown, the basic fine for fishing without a license is $35. For those unable to produce a valid North Carolina identification card the fine jumps to $75; additional fees increase the total cost of the ticket to $196.
Brown acknowledged he didn't cite the men for being unlicensed, non-resident anglers, which would have required them to pay the fine. Asked why, one could almost hear him shrug through the receiver.
"They were going to jail anyway," he says. "So it really wouldn't have mattered."