On Jan. 7, a room full of law enforcement officers and community members looked on as a group of activists held a press conference in the Stancil Center of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Uptown Charlotte.
Leaders from organizations like SAFE Coalition, Comunidad Colectiva and the Latin American Coalition were there in support of new Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden on his 30th day in office. They spoke about how he was living up to his campaign promises to end solitary confinement and resume in-person visitation at the jail upstairs, but mostly they talked about the end of 287g, the infamous program that for 12 years had allowed deputies in the jail to identify arrestees who were in the country illegally and enter their names into a national database used by federal authorities like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“I commend Sheriff McFadden for sticking to his campaign promises to help stop family separations in Mecklenburg County by ending the 287g contract and making members of our community feel safer,” said Sebastian Feculak with the New South Progressives.
The press conference signaled a fresh start to the new year. In no other time in recent memory had a group of activists hosted an event in support of any law enforcement entity.
Stefania Arteaga with Comunidad Colectiva wrapped up the mood of the day with an optimistic tone.
“I think overall the message that we’re hearing is that together we’re standing in solidarity — not only standing in solidarity as a community but we’re standing in solidarity with the sheriff that stands for our beliefs, that stands for our community and sees the bright future of Mecklenburg County,” she said.
When asked about comments from ICE officials implying that the end of 287g would lead to an increased in immigration enforcement actions on the streets, Arteaga remained steadfast.
“There’s a misconception in the overall Mecklenburg County community, but ICE has always been out there,” she said. “This is not changing anything. It’s simply fearmongering. They try to continue this rhetoric that they’re going to do something they never did before, however, they’ve always done so.”
Just a month later, however, ICE followed through on threats to intensify the enforcement of immigration laws with a sweeping series of arrests in Mecklenburg County and across the state that’s harmed local businesses and left many in Charlotte’s immigrant community scared to leave their homes.
Regional ICE director Sean Gallagher has warned that the ramped up raids and arrests will be “the new normal” for counties like Mecklenburg and Wake, where new sheriff Gerald Baker has also ended participation in the 287g program. In response, area activists are mobilizing to confront federal authorities, pressure local officials and help families affected by the arrests.
The crackdown began with a raid at Bear Creek Arsenal, a gun manufacturing plant in Sanford, a town of about 30,000 people with a large Latinx and Hispanic population. Agents with Homeland Security Investigations went to the plant on Feb. 5 and began questioning employees in the break room. In the end, agents arrested 27 Bear Creek employees who they said used false documents and fake social security numbers when they were hired.
While that action was part of a separate year-long investigation by HSI, it did kick off a week in which 200 people around the state would be arrested by ICE. At a press conference at the Charlotte Department of Homeland Security offices on Friday, Gallagher blamed McFadden directly for the increased intensity of ICE actions locally.
“The Mecklenburg County sheriff’s decision to restrict cooperation with ICE serves as an open invitation to aliens who commit criminal offenses that Mecklenburg County is now a safe haven for persons seeking to evade federal authorities,” he said. “ICE will now have no choice but to conduct more at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests instead of arrests at the jail where enforcement is safer for everyone involved.”
Gallagher claimed that the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office has been releasing dangerous criminals back out onto the streets since doing away with 287g.
In a statement released on Feb. 10, the MCSO stated that no such thing is happening.
“The Sheriff does not set bail, and Sheriff does not determine when individuals are eligible for bail,” the statement read. “For ICE representative Sean Gallagher to suggest that dangerous people are suddenly walking out of jail because of the termination of the 287g policy is engaging in cynical fear mongering.”
The release went on to list ways in which the sheriff’s office does cooperate with ICE, including sharing arrestee fingerprint records, honoring criminal warrants from ICE and verifying a person’s citizenship status for felonies and impaired-driving offenses.
“Sheriff McFadden is deeply committed to keeping the community safe and is committed to providing ICE access to the Mecklenburg County jail,” the statement read. “If ICE is interested in addressing violent crimes committed by all citizens and not just those committed by immigrants, Sheriff McFadden would embrace the opportunity to work with ICE to address violence at all levels in our community.”
By the end of the week, more than a dozen arrests had taken place in Charlotte, and Arteaga recorded calls into the Comunidad Colectiva hotline reporting arrests in Hickory, Gastonia, Huntersville and Concord. She and her team relay that information through text to a network of people so that undocumented immigrants can be made aware of places they should avoid.
If she’s nearby, Arteaga will drive to the spot where a traffic stop or other ICE action is reported to observe.
“I’ve been the one that’s been confronting ICE, so it’s been nerve-racking for myself as an immigrant, and it’s been very scary,” Arteaga said. “We’re really trying to make sure that we work with allies who have citizenship privilege to be out on the streets and report back.”
Adding to the fear was the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which on Feb. 6 and 7 ran a “traffic safety saturation patrol” in the Eastway division, using 25 officers from four different area departments to carry out 124 traffic stops in just four hours, just as ICE operations were picking up in an area of Charlotte that houses the largest population of Latinx and Hispanic people.
“You have a federal agency at home here impersonating you for some of these stops, so why are y’all still doing stops in these predominantly black and brown neighborhoods where people are already scared?” Arteaga asked of the local police. “How is CMPD trying to rebuild trust in a period where maybe they should lay low or call out ICE for using these tactics?”
On Feb. 8, CMPD released a statement acknowledging the ICE arrests in Charlotte and stating that CMPD officers “have not and will not participate in ICE immigration enforcement,” adding that they are not required to inquire about a person’s citizenship status or give any such information to federal authorities.
Nevertheless, the timing of the aggressive patrolling in the Eastway area did not help put members of the immigrant community at ease. Kimberly Perez, a teacher at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, said half of her students didn’t show up for school on Feb. 7 as word spread of the heavy ICE and police presence in east Charlotte.
Manolo Betancourt, owner of the popular Manolo’s Bakery on Central Avenue, said his business dropped by 75 percent that same day. He said he doesn’t know what to tell his employees when they ask about ICE.
“I feel three different kind of fears: the fear of my customers, the fear of my employees and the fear that I have to face myself,” Betancourt told a group of about 30 people who came to the Latin American Coalition offices on Thursday night to learn how they could help.
Jamilah Espinosa, an immigration attorney who attended the gathering, said that her first piece of advice for people dealing with ICE is to remain silent. She pointed out that HSI agents did not know who many of the people working at Bear Creek were until they began to question them.
“The best thing that people can do is be quiet,” Espinosa said. “The question that I always get is, ‘Is that going to prevent them from taking me?’ No, that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from detaining you if they have information already that you’re undocumented. But that preserves a lot of your rights, because the first thing that immigration has to do is prove that you are not a citizen of the U.S. or that you don’t have legal status here.
“They only know who you are based on what you tell them. So what happens is, they get all this information from you — where you came from or how you entered — they prepare that in a document, and it’s the very first thing that they present to an immigration judge, and that’s the first prong that an immigration judge needs to deport you, and you’ve met that burden for them. Being quiet allows them not to do that.”
Once someone is detained, it can be very difficult to figure out where they’ve been taken, Espinosa said. She quoted a Telemundo report about the Bear Creek Arsenal raid that said it was “like the ground swallowed them,” because families had no idea how to even contact their loved ones, let alone connect them with a legal defense.
“One of the first things that happens is, basically people say, ‘They disappeared,’ because we can’t locate them. If you don’t have the right information, it’s very difficult,” Espinosa said. “A lot of times I receive calls where people say, ‘My brother is named so and so and can you find him somewhere in the United States?’ No, unfortunately, even though we’re in the 21st century, immigration does not have a great system in place for me to just call and say, ‘Hey, ICE do you have so and so in your custody?’”
But the main goal for Espinosa and local advocacy organizations is to not let it get to that point, which is why she’s constantly reminding everyone about the rights that they have if confronted by ICE.
For example, many people don’t know that possessing a valid identification or presenting one to law enforcement is only required by law in North Carolina if someone is driving a vehicle. If you’re just walking down the street, you do not need to have or show ID, she said.
“We want the community to realize that they have constitutional rights,” Espinosa said. “The biggest thing for our community is realizing that preserving their rights is the best way that us lawyers can defend them. When I do the ‘Know your rights’ [posts] over and over and over on Facebook, sometimes I have people say, ‘You say this all the time,’ but you have to be a broken record, because when people get nervous, that’s the first thing they forget.”
That’s why organizations like Action NC are hosting Know Your Rights trainings and publishing Immigrant Preparedness Action Kits to help people create a plan that they can implement if they’re ever caught up in an immigration enforcement action.
Hector Vaca, immigrant justice director with Action NC, has been a longtime activist for immigration issues in Charlotte, but said ICE has become as aggressive as he’s ever seen them recently.
“The immigrant community has been very scared because the truth of the matter is, if you look up the dictionary definition of the word terrorism, ICE is doing exactly what the dictionary definition is, which is scaring a population with random acts around town. So people have been scared,” Vaca said. “We’ll be working with different groups around town to see in what way we can help with rapid response, but the point is just working from the grassroots up.”
And that’s where change will come from if the community is going to change the new normal.