In 2008, Yolanda Zavala's son was on the side of a Wake County road with a flat tire. A police officer ticketed him for driving without a license. Thanks to Wake County's participation in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g), the police determined that he was here illegally, and ICE quickly deported him to Mexico.
Zavala hasn't seen him since.
At a forum in downtown Raleigh last Wednesday, Zavala's granddaughter Esperanza, a Raleigh high school student and aspiring cardiac surgeon, told Sheriff Donnie Harrison about the impact the deportation had on her family. "The day I found out my father was no longer with us, I went into a depression," she said. "At school I would always sit in the corner of the classroom by myself. At home I would never want to go out of my room."
Zavala, Esperanza, and dozens of others pleaded their case, noting that there are concrete steps Harrison can take to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the county's immigrant communities. To begin with, it could choose not to renew the 287(g) program, which delegates immigration authority to local law enforcement. Wake's participation is set to expire at the end of June; Harrison wants to renew it.
"People are always fearful of getting in the car, getting pulled over, getting taken to jail, having ICE check their paperwork, and getting them deported," Zavara says.
Wake is one of five counties in North Carolina—and the sheriff's office is one of thirty-two law enforcement agencies in sixteen states—that participates in 287(g). Since 2008, when Wake County first entered into the program, some eight thousand people have been deported.
At the forum last week, Harrison said that while he has officers trained by ICE, they only get involved when people are being processed at the jail. (In some cases, Harrison later told the INDY, individuals who are stopped by deputies and do not have identification are brought to the jail so the police can figure out who they are; if the deputies determine that they are in the country illegally, they can call ICE.)
"We're not out there to pluck you up," Harrison told the hundred or so people in attendance. "That's ICE's job. But it's a tool I have to weed people out."
But several speakers said that, because of 287(g), they're afraid to call the police to report crimes. They also didn't buy the notion that law enforcement wasn't targeting the undocumented; after all, they said, their friends and relatives have been deported following minor traffic infractions.
"Getting rid of 287(g) would signal to the community that the sheriff is listening to their concerns," says Emilio Vicente, communications coordinator for the Southeast Immigrants Rights Network. "[Harrison] kept saying, 'I am following the law, I can't do anything'—and there are some things he cannot do—but 287(g) is optional, and he opts into it as he sees fit."
There are other ways to improve relations between immigrants and cops, advocates told Harrison, such as programs offering identification to immigrants who are trying to obtain legal status. Greensboro has had such a program since 2013. More than six thousand IDs have been distributed both to immigrants and citizens who don't have a driver's license.
"In the first year we had twelve ID cardholders step forth and say, 'I'm a victim of a crime, I have very important information,'" said the Reverend David Fraccaro, director of the nonprofit FaithAction, which helped start the Greensboro program. "They came forward, reported those crimes, and said they never would have done so if they didn't have this ID. So when we say it leads to safer communities, you can bank on that."
Nevertheless, undocumented immigrants across North Carolina are at the mercy of an increasingly hostile state government.
Last fall, Governor McCrory signed a bill prohibiting counties and cities from limiting enforcement of federal immigration laws and prohibiting immigrants from using consular documents to identify themselves to non-police government officials. In addition, local governments can no longer forbid officers from questioning people about their immigration status or from sharing that information with ICE.
Then, last week, Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 868, which could strip local governments of funding if they protect undocumented immigrants. That bill would also prohibit the use of community ID cards like FaithAction's in Greensboro.
Zavala says that so long as undocumented immigrants are forced into the shadows, their communities will continue to live in fear of the police, which puts them at risk.
"Immigrants day to day are criminalized by these racist laws that promote discrimination and separate us from our families," Zavala told Harrison. "For us, 287(g) means you are more interested in doing the dirty work of ICE than protecting our communities."
This article appeared in print with the headline "In the Shadows"