Federal officials are dropping deportation cases in Alamance County after a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation alleged that Sheriff Terry Johnson and his office racially profile Latinos.
Durham attorney Marty Rosenbluth, who specializes in defending Latino immigrants, tells the Indy that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyers voluntarily closed six of his pending deportation cases in the days after Sept. 18, when the DOJ notified Johnson's office by letter the results of its investigation.
Each of Rosenbluth's deportation cases involved a Latino's arrest on the charge of driving without a license. In many cases in Alamance, driving without a license is the only charge brought against Latinos, Rosenbluth says. DOJ noted those arrests indicate profiling, explaining that the charge is "an offense not observable from the road."
It's unclear how many Alamance deportation cases have been dropped since the DOJ's letter, which included accusations that Johnson and his deputies pushed traffic checkpoints in Latino neighborhoods, varied their enforcement activity depending on a driver's ethnicity and masked discriminatory policing by underreporting traffic statistics.
It assigned blame to the highest rungs of the Alamance County Sheriff's Office (ACSO), saying Johnson instructed his deputies to target Latinos, whom he reportedly described as "taco eaters" when speaking to his staff.
The DOJ sent the letter a month after an Indy analysis of Alamance traffic data found Latino motorists are twice as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested by Alamance deputies during traffic stops, and that Latino arrest rates in Alamance are far higher than in other North Carolina counties. The letter concluded a two-year investigation in which DOJ officials say they pored over sheriff's office traffic statistics and policies, and interviewed more than 125 community members and current and former sheriff's office employees.
DOJ demanded the "elimination of overt discrimination," new training for sheriff's staff, improved data collection and more. Federal officials have pledged legal action if the Alamance sheriff's office does not cooperate.
ICE spokesman Vinnie Picard confirmed that Alamance deportation cases have been closed since Sept. 18, although he declined to say how many. "I wouldn't say that cases are being closed solely because of the report, but it is a factor that has led to that outcome in some cases," Picard said.
ICE has already withdrawn the sheriff's office from its 287(g) program, which extends federal immigration enforcement powers to local law enforcement.
Rosenbluth, a longtime critic of Johnson's office, says ICE is clearly responding to the DOJ report. "ICE does not know what to do with all these Alamance County cases," he said. "They can't keep these people in deportation if their arrest was unconstitutional."
Arrests are key because suspected undocumented immigrants are processed through customs databases upon their booking into the county jail.
The Alamance deportations clash with recent ICE directives to local law enforcement, encouraging officers to focus on dangerous criminals rather than low-level traffic offenders.
In a Sept. 26 letter to DOJ Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, sheriff's office attorney S.C. Kitchen scoffed at the allegations, writing the DOJ report is "full of factual inaccuracies and devoid of specifics."
"It is instead an indictment of the sheriff based on newspaper articles, rumors and gossip," Kitchen wrote. "Due to these factual inaccuracies, the conclusion that the sheriff or his deputies violated any laws of the United States is fatally flawed."
Kitchen claimed that the DOJ probe and subsequent report were motivated by efforts to unseat Johnson by political adversaries such as Fairness Alamance. Meanwhile, Johnson denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the DOJ claims as "baseless" in a separate statement.
In a press conference organized by anti-287(g) activists Fairness Alamance Sept. 28 in Burlington, local Latinos told stories of their arrests by ACSO deputies. One—N.C. State University employee Suyapa Mejia-Guevara—said an Alamance deputy attempted to arrest her at a traffic checkpoint because he believed her driver's license was bogus.
"You are ugly and this is a beautiful woman," Mejia-Guevara said the deputy told her after inspecting her license. Mejia-Guevara, a U.S. citizen, said she was released after authorities determined her license was valid.
Others, such as Consuelo Lucia—an undocumented Alamance resident—say they were processed for deportation based on minor traffic charges. In Lucia's case, she said through an interpreter that she was charged with driving without a license after an officer pulled her over for a broken brake light.
These stories are not isolated, according to the Rev. Rosanna Panizo-Valladares, a Durham minister who works with Alamance immigrants. Panizo-Valladares said she has heard hundreds of stories of profiling in the county.
Alamance Latinos are living in a "world of constant fear," she said, and the entire community must address the problem.