It’s a Sunday afternoon at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Burlington, and schoolchildren and their families gather in a church meeting room to craft hand-made greeting cards. Little girls in their Sunday dresses, dark hair pulled back in ribbons, write messages in crayon on red paper. Organizer Laura Garduño Garcia looks over a stack of finished cards written to the Alamance County commissioners.
“There is one here that says ‘My name is Susana. Keep our families together, that is my wish. We want all families together and no 287(g)'.”
287(g) is a program operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under 287(g), local law enforcement officers can exercise the same authority as ICE agents. Six counties, including Wake, participate in the program.
In 2012, the federal Department of Justice sued the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office for racially profiling Latino drivers. The investigation found that the sheriff's department was setting up traffic checkpoints near Latino neighborhoods. Individual sheriff’s deputies were found to be stopping Latinos 4 to 10 times more often than other motorists. Garduño Garcia says people felt targeted.
“We have numerous accounts from people here in the community that say, ‘Yes, something as little as a fender bender or having your broken taillight could result in people detained in the Alamance County detention center and subsequently put in deportation proceedings.’” Garduño Garcia said.
The federal lawsuit ultimately ended in a settlement, but ICE officials during the Obama Administration kicked Alamance County out of the 287(g) program when the Department of Justice released its findings. Now, the sheriff’s office has shown interest in bringing the program back to Alamance County.
Since 2012, ICE has changed the 287(g) program. A representiative of ICE confirmed by email that the program no longer gives local officers additional arrest authority. Under the current model, deputies can not interrogate and detain someone right off the street. Instead, they could verify someone’s identity and immigration status after they’ve been arrested and jailed.
However, in North Carolina, it is a misdemeanor to drive without ever having obtained a driver’s license, and undocumented immigrants are not permitted to get a license here. So any undocumented person who drives to work, school or the grocery store may feel they are at a heightened risk of being deported under 287(g) if they were arrested for driving without a license.
The Alamance County Attorney has advised the county commissioners that they would have to pass a resolution to rejoin the program. Neither the sheriff’s office nor ICE would confirm whether the Alamance County has a pending application to rejoin 287(g). However, County Commission Chair Amy Galey said it is something Sheriff Johnson has talked to commissioners about.
“He’s been articulating for quite some time that he thinks that he needs access to the ICE civil database to verify the identity of people coming into the jail,” Galey said in an interview with WUNC, adding that it would allow the sheriff’s department to be reimbursed for detaining immigrants on behalf of ICE.
County commissioners have not scheduled a vote regarding 287(g). Members of the Latino community, led by activist Gorduno Garcia of Siembra NC, took the initiative to approach the commission Monday night.
“My hope is that the county commissioners are impressed by the courage of our people, by the fact that we’re taking it to them,” Garduño Garcia said. “That we’re letting them know what people in this community want -- to live a peaceful life.”
Garduño Garcia hoped the kids, and their cards, would have an effect on the commissioners.
“To say, ‘Hey, give me a great chance at my education, because this puts my family and my education at risk’.” Garduño Garcia said. “You know, what is it like for a child who might wonder what it’s like to come back home, if they don’t find their parents?”
Students of all ages made cards. Many declined to talk on record. They said they’re afraid. Some of their parents are likely undocumented. Some of the kids may have also immigrated, but many are natural-born U.S. citizens and native North Carolinians, including Milton Marin. Some of his family members emigrated from Mexico.
“It’s hard to say,” said Marin, 16, when asked if any of them were undocumented. “Usually they tell you not to say.”
Marin was ten years old the last time 287(g) was in place. He’s been in the car a couple times with family members when they were stopped by police. On Monday night, Marin spoke at the commissioners meeting on behalf of younger children, to share his experience of being young the last time the program was in place.
“I was in elementary at the time," he said. "We had a lot of fear and going outside and driving and being stopped -- those with and without papers. Mostly because [of] the abuse 287(g) can bring with racial profiling.”
Marin said that undermines public safety because Latinos - regardless of whether they are citizens, legal residents or undocumented - won’t trust police based on their memories of how the program operated six years ago. He says he believes some people would be afraid to drive or leave their homes.
“Burlington wouldn’t be as lively as it is right now,” Marin said.
After Marin spoke, one county commissioner spoke against reinstating the program and two said they'd support the sheriff’s wishes.
“I believe we need to do something in this nation about those who don’t feel they need to follow the rules,” Commissioner Tim Sutton said.
Commission Chair Amy Galey emphasized that the sheriff only wants to be able to better identify people who are detained in the county jail. Laura Garduño Garcia said even if the program is only applied in the jail, it will lead to racial profiling.
“Because the sheriff’s deputies will be asking people that are LatinX, that are immigrant in appearance, about their immigration status that they otherwise would not be asking other members of the community,” Garduño Garcia said.
It’s not clear when the Alamance County Commissioners will vote on bringing back 287(g). In the meantime, the fear of that unknown will be on the minds of many children who live and go to school there.