Here's what fear of deportation can look like in North Carolina: undocumented parents are arranging to have Mexican citizenship papers drawn up for their U.S.-born children. Why? If the parents are suddenly deported, the children can go along, even if it's "back" to a country where they've never lived.
Deportations increased under President Obama—leading critics to label him "deporter in chief," despite steps he took to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors—but the executive orders and antagonistic statements from President Trump are contributing to an atmosphere of heightening anxiety among immigrants, advocates say.
"[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has definitely created fear in the community with their actions, particularly in Charlotte, but also in the Triangle," says Will Saenz, communications coordinator for El Pueblo, a nonprofit advocacy organization for North Carolina Latinos. "It's put the community at unease, and people are going through a lot of tension. I would say that, generally speaking, we are more on the defensive than ever before."
At the same time, attendance is up at "Know Your Rights" workshops and legislative protests, Saenz says. "In North Carolina in the past couple of years, more than ever, we have seen a really strong immigrants' presence, especially at the General Assembly," he says. "People are more willing to speak up on these issues."
Widely publicized immigration sweeps, anti-immigrant rhetoric on the state and national levels, and a stream of proposed new laws targeting the undocumented have created churning dread for people who are in North Carolina without required papers. This fear has been stoked by Trump's portrayal of undocumented immigrants as "bad hombres," who are "rapists," "bringing drugs," and "bringing crime," even though a Department of Justice report from December showed that fewer than 5 percent of inmates in state and federal prison were noncitizens.
Trump's executive orders, ICE raids—including actions taken in February that rounded up 683 purported undocumented immigrants, which Trump hailed as a "military operation"—and bills working their way through the General Assembly are arriving on top of an existing program known as 287(g), named for a 1996 portion of federal immigration law. The law creates a path for ICE to be notified if an undocumented person is arrested and can lead to the person being detained and deported.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says thirteen ICE-trained deputies in the 287(g) unit deal with an average of two thousand people a year at the county's Hammond Road jail, south of downtown Raleigh. (Harrison says he doesn't know how many 287(g) cases have led to deportation; ICE didn't respond to a request for information.) Harrison has been questioned by Latino residents at recent community meetings about whether they were likely to be picked up at checkpoints. He said at a meeting in Garner that the sheriff's department would continue to conduct checkpoints but not with the goal of detaining undocumented immigrants.
The county's undocumented residents also face the question of whether to report crimes, because doing so might lead to their status being uncovered. Harrison is adamant that people can still report a crime without having their immigration status probed. "If you've got a problem in your neighborhood, call me. We don't question if you're undocumented."
Advocates say that might be the case, but there are many other situations—checkpoints, roundups—that leave people with a real fear of being deported.
Immigrants are dealt with differently across North Carolina's law enforcement jurisdictions. In addition to the one in Wake, 287(g) programs are up and running in Gaston, Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, and Henderson counties. On the other end of the spectrum, cities including Durham and Chapel Hill operate without an understanding with ICE, though they have not formally designated themselves as "sanctuary cities"—something that, in 2015, the state legislature and former governor Pat McCrory deemed illegal.
Even though the definition of the term sanctuary city is vague, the concept has brought pushback both from Trump and the state legislators sponsoring bills including House Bill 63, which would impose sanctions against cities that do not fully comply with state immigration laws, create new felony charges for some offenses involving fake IDs, disallow bond for undocumented people who are arrested, and probe for parties' immigration status in court proceedings. The bill moved forward in a House committee last week. In addition, Trump has threatened to withhold funding from cities that do not take part in reporting undocumented people who are accused of crimes.
Because of the potential retaliation, the Triangle's more progressive cities shy away from the word sanctuary, even while pledging solidarity with immigrant communities. In 2003, for example, Durham passed a resolution prohibiting police from targeting people based solely on their immigration status; after Trump made his threat earlier this year, city attorney Patrick Baker sought to assuage concerns about potential impacts to Durham: "I am not aware that Durham has been classified or perceived by the Federal government as a 'sanctuary city' but I am also not aware that the federal government has ever defined the term 'sanctuary city' or has maintained such a list of cities," he wrote in an email last month.
Proponents of 287(g) say it can help law enforcement track down criminals from other countries, whom they otherwise lack means of identifying. One person was arrested fifty times in Wake County before ICE told Harrison that the man faced serious outstanding charges in Honduras, Harrison says. "If he goes out and kills somebody, who's going to get blamed for it?" Harrison asks.
The city of Raleigh takes a different approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants, says spokeswoman Laura Hourigan.
"The Raleigh Police Department does not have a memorandum of agreement with ICE concerning the 287(g) program," Hourigan writes in an email. "RPD officers are not typically involved in matters involving immigration status and do not have access to the federal databases that contain status information. The focus of their interactions with people is the same regardless of racial or ethnic background—providing assistance to victims at their time of need and locating and charging suspects responsible for crimes committed in Raleigh."
Since the RPD doesn't enforce immigration laws, it doesn't have a written policy on 287(g). There is a policy on nonbiased policing, however, which says in part: "Except in 'suspect-specific incidents,' employees are prohibited from considering the race, national or ethnic origin, or other identifiable group descriptors of members of the public in deciding to detain a person or stop a motor vehicle and in deciding upon the scope or substance of any law enforcement action."
Durham's approach is similar, according to police chief C.J. Davis. "DPD officers do not make routine inquiries into the immigration status of individuals that they encounter in the performance of their duties," Davis wrote in an email in response to a query from a city council member. "In fact, officers have been instructed that the primary responsibility for enforcement of federal immigration law rests with the Department of Homeland Security and that officers of the DPD are expected to focus on detecting and apprehending individuals involved in violations of criminal law regardless of what the documentation status of the suspect may be."
Even though Triangle cities don't currently refer undocumented immigrants who get arrested to ICE, many such people spend each day afraid of what an interaction with authorities may bring. The mere threat of a crackdown has brought about a situation they didn't foresee even a year ago, Saenz says. They'd like to be free to drop their kids at school, to have driver's licenses, to live as their neighbors do.
Given that those changes would require a complete reversal in direction by the General Assembly, not to mention a new, friendlier administration in the White House, the community will likely deal with its new, uncomfortable reality for years to come.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In the Shadows"