For many Latinos in North Carolina, the difference between crime victim and criminal is the flick of a deputy’s pen.
Few know that better than Jorge and Jose Segura-Rios.
The two immigrant brothers from Mexico awoke at 2:50 a.m. Sept. 16, when a group of burglars demanding cash broke into their Knightdale home and beat then with handguns and an assault rifle.
The burglars escaped as Wake County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a panicked 911 call from the house. The deputies interviewed the victims and left.
Days later, Jorge and Jose were arrested. Jose was charged with common-law uttering after investigators determined he gave them false identification. Jorge, who provided his real name, was taken into custody because of his immigration status. He was quickly deported.
The brothers, who had asked the police for help, went from being victims of a crime to being the accused. They were ensnared by the federal 287(g) program, which lets local law enforcement begin deportation proceedings for undocumented immigrants guilty of felonies, DWIs and serious crimes. But increasingly the program has strayed from its focus on DWIs and felonies, as more Latinos are arrested and deported for committing lesser offenses or no offenses at all.
“Jorge is not guilty of any offense whatsoever,” said Robert E. Nunley, the attorney representing Jose. “But the Wake County Sheriff’s [Office] tricked them. He had no criminal history. He did nothing wrong. He is a true victim of a heinous crime, and it got him deported.”
Alamance, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Gaston, Henderson, Mecklenburg and Wake county sheriff’s offices and the Durham Police Department participate in 287(g). Some of these counties are using the program to round up and deport thousands of Latino immigrants who do not have proper documentation, but have been arrested for minor offenses.
“It seems like the majority of people being held in deportation proceedings are for misdemeanors,” said Irene Godinez, advocacy director for Latinos’ rights group, El Pueblo.
Nationwide, $54 million was spent on the program during the last fiscal year. In North Carolina, the General Assembly appropriated $750,000 for what lawmakers dubbed the Illegal Immigration Project.
“It’s intended to be used for those who are already booked into jail and those who pose the greatest threats to our community,” said Paul Cox, spokesman for U.S. Rep. David Price, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. He represents the state’s 4th Congressional District, which includes Orange, Durham and parts of Chatham and Wake counties.
Cox said police officers should prioritize the undocumented immigrants who go through 287(g) “in a way that focuses on removing criminal illegal immigrants, those who have been identified as felons and other criminals.”
In North Carolina, Senate Bill 229 also focuses on more serious crimes: “When any person charged with a felony or an impaired driving offense is confined for any period in a county jail … the administrator or other person in charge of the facility shall attempt to determine if the prisoner is a legal resident of the United States.”
Yet, traffic offenses, not including DWIs, make up the largest percentage of initial charges in Mecklenberg, Gaston and Alamance counties.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, whose department joined the program in June 2008, said the numbers are skewed toward traffic offenses because often illegal immigrants do not have the documents to ensure an officer that they will show up for their court date. After stopping someone, the officer uses his discretion whether or not to arrest the individual.
“It’s frustrating for me to sit here and listen to the people say, ‘You’re racial profiling’ or ‘Why do you take them to jail for no driver’s license?’ Well, we’re not really taking them to jail for no driver’s license, it’s just a fact that we don’t know who that person is or if that person is coming to court,” Harrison said.
The debate over the federal program is a snapshot of a larger immigration debate raging in North Carolina.
“The program is completely caught up in this anti-immigrant, racist backlash against Latinos,” said Mark Dorosin, senior attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights. A 2006 study by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School found that documented and undocumented Latinos accounted for 27.5 percent of the state’s population growth from 1990 to 2004. Meanwhile, Latinos contribute to the state’s economy, paying $756 million in taxes.
Latinos make up 7 percent of the state’s workforce. Twenty-nine percent of construction work would be difficult to do without Latino workers.
Despite these positive impacts, the 287(g) program has wide support in the state.
As first reported by The News & Observer, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell criticized illegal immigrants in a story published Sept. 7. Bizzell portrayed the immigrants as drunk drivers and criminals, saying they were “trashy” and “breed like rabbits.”
After local media publicized his comments, El Pueblo and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, among others, called for the sheriff’s resignation.
But Bizzell continued to generate support from voters, some of whom wrote The News & Observer defending the sheriff. Sylvia Langford of Knightdale claimed Bizzell said what many Americans want to say and that “Bizzell need not apologize for anything.”
Johnston County Commissioners also gave their support to Bizzell, even commending him for his work to protect the citizens of the county.
Bizzell remains sheriff in Johnston County until his term ends in 2010.
Advocacy groups argue that 287(g) alienates the Latino community. “It really creates this climate of fear, even among those who are not undocumented,” said Dorosin. “There is always the threat of deportation.”
Law-abiding immigrants are afraid their documentation status will be questioned when they go to the police to report crimes, causing a chilling effect on the Latino community. Many Latinos who are questioned through 287(g) about their immigration status are found to be in the country legally. Advocacy groups worry that people with Hispanic last names will be hauled to jail just to have their documentation checked.
The fear of contacting police leaves Hispanic citizens vulnerable to criminals targeting them, and advocacy groups fear that many more Latinos have been targeted and are afraid to come forward.
A series of robberies in southwest-central Durham targeted apartment complexes where many Latinos live. In Raleigh, Latinos have been robbed, kidnapped and assaulted, in apparently targeted attacks.
But state legislators can do little about 287(g), other than cutting state funding for the program, a goal state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird is trying to accomplish.
“We’ve given them so much money to do nothing but damage,” said Kinnaird, co-chair of the Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety Committee. “Just hurting people, it’s terrible. I just feel as though the state of North Carolina and sheriffs have no business getting involved in federal issues.”
However, Sheriff Harrison thinks the program has been good for Wake County. “To me, I think it’s going to make this a safer county,” he said.
The program gives sheriff’s offices across the state access to a federal database, which is intended to reduce the number of criminals charged under different names in different counties. It is also designe to open communication among law enforcement agencies.
When someone calls 911, the officers don’t gauge their response based on the caller’s documentation status, Harrison said.
“It’s like a Republican or a Democrat, I don’t know who you are, don’t care,” Harrison said. “My job is to protect you. And sometimes I think these advocacy groups, because they get paid, they just try to stir up some stuff and make a mountain out of a molehill.”
Yet for crime victims Jorge and Jose Segura-Rios, their mountain only got bigger when they called police.
Matt Tomsic is a senior in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.