A community forum on immigration at CityWell United Methodist Church.

When a group of Durham elected officials traveled to a rural Georgia immigration detention center in August, they saw eight-by-ten foot solitary confinement cells and a stream of men rushed through disorganized court proceedings without lawyers. They came back with a goal: That no one end up in a place like that because of local policies in Durham. 

To that end, the same group – Durham City Council members Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, DeDreana Freeman, and Vernetta Alston, school board member Natalie Beyer and Durham County Commissioner Brenda Howerton – held a community forum Tuesday night.

Holding a forum was one way they planned to “look to all Durham residents to help us achieve this vision,”  they wrote in an open letter after their return from the Stewart Detention Center. Among the initial ideas they shared in the letter: expanding language access, starting a ride-share program, creating a driving certificate to use in lieu of a license, and diverting more people from arrest.

Tuesday’s forum was held at the CityWell United Methodist Church, where until recently Samuel Oliver-Bruno lived for eleven months taking sanctuary from deportation. Oliver-Bruno was nabbed by ICE agents at a routine appointment the day after Thanksgiving and quickly deported. A chair in the audience was held empty for him, with signs reading “Samuel’s seat. Keep praying.”

Oliver-Bruno was held at Stewart prior to his deportation, as was Widlin Acosta, a Riverside High School student detained in 2016. Their cases had totally different outcomes, despite public outcries of support for both. 

Acosta was able to get released from Stewart on bond thanks to the advocacy of his teachers, classmates and elected officials. Caballero said making “enough noise” could at one time pressure ICE into releasing people, but that’s not the case under President Donald Trump’s no-exception immigration enforcement policies.

“That doesn’t work anymore and I think we learned that the hard, painful way with Samuel,” she said.

The officials shared why they wanted to travel to Stewart – to see the place for themselves and learn more about the deportation proceedings residents have been through – what stuck with them most from the visit, and what Durham is already doing to protect community members from ending up in ICE custody. 

“They’re shipped so fast,” said Freeman, who, through her work at the East Durham Children’s Initiative, knows several families with members sent to Stewart. “You can speak to them Tuesday and on Friday they’re gone. I was going with hopes of finding ways to slow down the process.”

They acknowledged that their tour was a “sanitized” one, as Johnson put it. They were taken around to parts of the facility that weren’t being currently inhabited and weren’t allowed to talk to any detainees, who they said had clearly been instructed not to try to interact with them.

“I’m really clear what we saw was not real,” Howerton said.

They noted that the majority of detainees were dressed in blue, denoting they were low risk based on their criminal records (or lack thereof). From the court proceedings they observed, they recalled how the judge presided via video conference and how the government’s attorney seemed to know little about each hurried case before her.

“In my head I was screaming ‘what are you doing?'” said Alston, who is a criminal defense attorney. “It was ridiculous, like the first time she had seen the files.”

As for achieving their goal, Johnson noted that the Durham Police Department has ended most checkpoints in the city, and expanded certification of U-Visas, a type of visa reserved for immigrant victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement.

The installment of a new county sheriff will also make a dent. Clarence Birkhead, who was sworn in earlier this month, quickly issued a directive telling Durham County Detention Facility staff not to honor so called ICE-detainers – which are requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for local jails to continue to hold people ICE believes may be subject to deportation for up to forty-eight hours beyond the time they would have otherwise been released, for example by posting bail – unless those requests come with a judicial warrant for arrest or a court order.

Birkhead’s predecessor, Mike Andrews, routinely honored ICE detainers. If they are accompanied by a warrant, detainers typically come with an administrative warrant whereby ICE officials, without judicial review, affirm that a person is subject to deportation. The Sheriff’s Office under Andrews had an unwritten policy to honor all detainer requests, despite multiple court rulings that the detainers are unconstitutional, the INDY reported in January. 

Using records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, the INDY reported in August that out of two hundred detainer requests sent to the jail, 120 people saw their detainers lifted as a result of being booked into ICE detention.

In the week following Birkhead’s directive, eleven people were able to leave the jail rather than being held longer under an ICE detainer. Nine were released after posting bond and two after serving their sentence, according to the Sheriff’s Office.  

Caballero says she consistently hears that a type of state-issued drivers license for undocumented immigrants would make the biggest impact on their day-to-day lives. She’s also interested in exploring, with more community feedback, a program to provide undocumented people with attorneys in eviction court. Attendees suggested via sticky note more opportunities for community input and a system to alert the community about ICE activities and detentions.

Closing the forum, CityWell Pastor Cleve May recalled the day congregants and community members accompanied Oliver-Bruno to his biometrics appointment last month and saw ICE agents tackle him. As the crowd encircled the van in which Oliver-Bruno was being held, ICE agents turned up the radio louder than his son’s voice telling him in Spanish that he loved him, laughed and took selfies, May said. In those moments it became difficult to see their humanity. 

“The moment we dehumanize the people against whom we are standing,” he said, “we cease to be standing on the side of justice.”