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Follow our coverage of immigration and related issues affecting Latinos in the Charlotte area.

Mecklenburg Sheriff 'Disappointed' In ICE Billboard Campaign On Charlotte Interstates

Nick de la Canal
Sheriff Garry McFadden cuts an anti-287(g) cake in 2019 shortly after taking office and ending the county's participation in the controversial program. Since McFadden became sheriff, he and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials have clashed.

Five new billboards along highways in Charlotte feature the faces of immigrants who entered the country illegally and are facing criminal charges but were released from local custody. But Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden called the billboards "misinformation."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a news releasethat it launched the billboard campaign to educate the public about issues between the agency and local law enforcement offices that don't honor what ICE calls immigration detainers.

McFadden has long been in a dispute with ICE over the practice, advocating instead for federal officials to get court orders if they want people who otherwise meet conditions for release to remain in pre-trial custody.

The immigration detainers are holds that allow police to keep arrested immigrants for up to 48 hours until ICE is able to take them into their custody. Local law enforcement agencies are not required to honor them.

“Too often, sanctuary policies limiting cooperation with ICE result in significant public safety concerns because they release dangerous individuals back into the community we are attempting to protect,” said Tony Pham, a senior ICE official. “ICE will continue to enforce immigration laws set forth by Congress through the efforts of the men and women of ICE to remove criminal aliens and making our communities safer.”

This billboard campaign highlights five people ICE says were released by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office instead of being transferred to ICE.

In a news release, McFadden responded to the campaign and called the billboards misleading. He said he was "disappointed in the tactics that ICE employs" and referred to the messages on the billboards as "misinformation."

"I do not release individuals from custody as ICE’s billboards suggest. Rather, when a Judge or Magistrate ORDERS that an individual SHALL BE RELEASED upon fulfilling certain terms and conditions including payment of a bond, I abide by that Court Order as I am REQUIRED to do so by law and by my oath of office," McFadden wrote.

The Mecklenburg sheriff suggested that ICE should be held responsible for not apprehending individuals in the country illegally that threaten public safety, and not local authorities for following court orders to release them.

Last year, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would have forced sheriffs to cooperate with ICE.

Shortly after taking office in December 2018, McFadden ended his office's participation in the controversial 287(g) program, under which the sheriff’s office reported the immigration status of its inmates to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The sheriff's inauguration party famously featured a cake with a "no 287(g)" symbol.

The gesture was the first in a series of legal and symbolic back-and-forths between ICE and McFadden.

Most recently, ICE held a press conference at the Department of Homeland Security office in Charlotte in September touting the results of a statewide raid. Between arrests in the Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte areas, ICE detained 24 immigrants who, according to the agency, posed a public safety threat.

Mary José Espinosa, a community organizer with immigrants' rights group Comunidad Colectiva, says these billboards and recent raids are an attempt to stir fear in the community.

"They're very clearly paying (exorbitant) amounts of money to put these (billboards) up and it sends a very loud message to anyone who's watching," she said. "To immigrants, it's, 'We're watching you.' It almost feels like a threat. To folks who are not immigrants, it fuels a certain perception about immigrants."

According to ICE, the billboards are located along various points of Interstates 85, 77, 277 and 485.

    Laura Brache is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration and the Latino community in Charlotte for WFAE and La Noticia.

    Laura Brache works with WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte, through Report for America to cover immigration and deportation issues facing the Latino community. She also reports on the Charlotte immigration court, one of the toughest in the nation with the second-highest deportation rate in the country in 2019.