Earlier this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested about 200 people in a series of enforcement actions in Charlotte, the Raleigh-Durham area, and other communities in North Carolina. Most of them had criminal convictions, pending criminal charges or deportation orders, but about fifty were immigrants here illegally, whom ICE was not specifically looking for.
ICE Field Office Director Sean Gallagher paid a visit to Charlotte to say the enforcements were a direct result of the state's largest counties cutting ties with ICE. The sheriffs of Mecklenburg and Wake counties recently fulfilled campaign promises to end their offices participation in the 287(g) program. The program allows sheriff's deputies to notify ICE when someone is brought to jail and found to be living in the country illegally.
ICE spokesman Brian Cox joins Morning Edition host Lisa Worf.
WORF: For perspective, how many immigrants has ICE routinely been detaining on a weekly basis in North Carolina.
COX: So let's put it in context of last year. So for the totality of 2018 the Atlanta field office which covers North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia made around 15,000 arrests. If you just take the 2018 numbers for the year, if you take 15,000 and divide that by 52 weeks in the year you get a little less than 300 average arrests in any given week for all of 2018.
WORF: And that again is across the Carolinas and Georgia.
WORF: Sean Gallagher, the field director based in Georgia, had referred to this as "the new normal." Are arrests on the 200 level in North Carolina, is that something that we'll be seeing on a weekly basis?
COX: I think as the field office director said the short answer is yes. But it is important for persons to understand the reasons why. That this doesn't mean that more persons are being arrested in total. But undoubtedly these arrests are going to be done in a much more visible manner. And the reason for that being, quite simply, is that due to local policy changes, particularly in Mecklenburg County, whereas several months ago the majority of ICE enforcement could take place at the county detention center when persons who had been arrested on criminal charges were being released from custody, ICE could go to the detention center and make the arrest there. Most people would never see that.
The reality is now given that the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department will no longer cooperate with ICE, ICE has no choice but to send its officers into the community, into neighborhoods, into workplaces to make those same arrests. But where it would have been not very visible several months ago now it's going to be a much more visible way in which the agency is forced to conduct enforcement.
WORF: Who are the targets of these ICE enforcement actions?
COX: So let's just talk about 2018. So for the Atlanta field office, this is the local field office for all of 2018, 91 percent of the persons arrested by this agency either had a criminal conviction or pending criminal charges. So there's a lot of information that circulates about what ICE does and doesn't do. It is absolutely true, some of the things that are being said. For example, that if ICE doing a targeted enforcement action toward a criminal offender, which given our limited resources that is what we are focused on, if we are forced to go into the community in pursuit of that targeted person, that criminal offender, the public safety threat, and there are other persons who are also in the country unlawfully, they may also be taken into custody as well.
And so due to these local policies where ICE is no longer able to go to the jail and take custody of that criminal offender, and only that criminal offender, these local policies are having the result that means more persons are likely to be encountered by this agency.
WORF: What are the budget implications of this stepped up enforcement then?
COX: You know, ICE still has the same number of officers that we are reallocating the way in which ICE does enforcement. But ICE has not increased its manpower. Now ICE is going to have to spend more resources to identify, to locate these persons, to go out and arrest them. So that is certainly more resource driven, a consequence of that is it's also less safe for everyone involved.
If a person is at the county detention center that is a safe location. They've been screened for weapons. They're in custody. When you knock on a door, you never know if that person may have weapons, that there could be a standoff. And so being forced to do more operations at-large, it puts ICE officers at greater risk. It puts the person being taken into custody at greater risk. And it's more dangerous for the community as a whole.
WORF: If less cooperation from sheriff's departments in terms of participation in the 287(g) program is also going to be a new norm, are there other any other avenues of immigration enforcement that ICE might consider, that may create less fear in the community, that may be more more cost effective?
COX: You know that's a speculative question. What I could say is that ICE still at this moment, let's be clear, we have stated repeatedly we are still willing to work with our local partners. We prefer to work with local partners. When federal, state and local law enforcement work together in a collaborative manner that is better for everyone involved.
WORF: Now Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office is no longer participating in the 287(g) program but they are cooperating. They do give you legal status and honor ICE warrants and things like that.
COX: Well, I don't want to put words in their mouth. I would simply say that the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department does not honor ICE detainers nor will they even notify this agency when a criminal offender is being released regardless of the crime. Beyond that this agency also is not able to interview persons in county custody. So if a person's fingerprints are already on file, we know who they are. But if there is an instance in which a person has no prior encounters, no record on file, by ICE not being able to go into that jail and interview those persons we don't even know who they are.
WORF: That's ICE spokesman Brian Cox.
In response to Cox's comments, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office says the office does allow ICE to interview inmates, provided they have a criminal warrant or are there to serve one.