On Thursday, the six activists arrested on Oct. 29 for blocking traffic outside of the governor’s mansion to protest his signing of House Bill 318a law expanding E-Verify, forbidding sanctuary cities and restricting what forms of ID immigrants can useappeared for the first time before a judge at the Wake County Justice Center. It was a perfunctory hearing: They were granted an unsecured bond and given a February court date.

But the activists saw an opportunity to once again draw attention to a law that, in their view, “targets immigrants and low-income people,” as Angeline Echeverria, executive director of local nonprofit El Pueblo and one of those arrested, said afterward at a press conference outside the courthouse.

The immigration system has long been “designed to keep out people who aren’t American enough, white enough, wealthy enough, educated enough, quiet enough,” added Ivanna Gonzalez, another arrestee. “… This bill was designed to pit our communities against one another.”

About an hour later, inside the Wake County Detention Center, a similar opportunity presented itself. About a dozen people, including some of those present at the earlier press conference, protested an Immigration and Customs Enforcement forum designed to champion the “success” of a long-controversial partnership between the feds and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. Wake County has employed this program, known as 287(g)which deputizes participating state and local law enforcement agencies to help deport undocumented immigrants arrested within their jurisdictionsince 2007. (It is one of five North Carolina counties currently participating, the others being Mecklenburg, Gaston, Cabarrus and Henderson.) In 2015, 294 people have been deported from Wake County because of 287(g).

That, to ICE and the sheriff’s office, has made Wake County safer. “In my professional opinion,” ICE assistant field office director Robert Alfieri said, “287(g) is the single most effective program we’ve ever worked with.”

Even so, it has come under fire elsewhere in the state. In 2012, for example, Alamance County was expelled from the program after the federal government brought a lawsuitdismissed by a federal judge this past Augustaccusing the sheriff’s office of targeting Latinos. And then in January, Charlotte’s Immigration Integration Task Force recommended that its police department nix its relationship with ICE. (A CMPD official told the INDY that the program is actually under the jurisdiction of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.)

And now it’s coming under fire here, too. When ICE project manager Edgar Vasquez opened the floor to public comment, Comité Popular Somos Raleigh member Gregorio Morales stood up. Reading from a short prepared statement, Morales said, “Our perception of this program is completely different. You completely decided to doubt the Latino community. You decided not to work for the people’s safety. … Instead, you decided to work on behalf of the private-prison shareholders.” After Vasquez’s remarks, protesters stood up and marched out of the meeting while chanting, “ICE out of North Carolina!” The ICE officials watched stone-faced.

Morales’ comment on prisons referred to the fact that private prison conglomerates have profited from the explosion of immigration detentions owing to this and other programs. ICE is obligated by federal law to “maintain a level” of 34,000 detention beds each year; as the Texas-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership found in a report released earlier this year, private prisons account for 62 percent of these beds.

After the protesters walked out, Vasquez and Alfieri continued to face tough questions about the program’s impact on the Latino community. One person said it creates a perception among immigrants that ICE and local law enforcement agencies are the same entity, and this stokes fear that undocumented immigrants may be deported if they call the police.

“It is my commitment not to deport anyone who is not a legitimate threat,” Alfieri responded.

While that might be his commitment, the numbers show a different story. In a January 2015 U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo, Secretary Jeh Johnson defined “priority 3 offenders”undocumented immigrants who’ve been issued a final order of removal on or after Jan. 1, 2014as representing the “lowest priority for apprehension and removal.” Yet out of the 294 people deported from Wake this year, 51 have been priority 3.

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It’s a similar trend nationwide; in 2014, ICE reported that 40 percent of its removals of people who have committed a crime were “level 3” deportations, defined as “aliens convicted of a misdemeanor crime punishable by less than one year in prison.”

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison blamed the program’s perception problem on “motivations that group has”presumably, Comité Popular Somos Raleigha group that he said “incites fear” within the community. He also cited examples of violent retribution against undocumented individuals who call the police as the real reason why undocumented immigrants doesn’t trust the cops.

Harrison disagreed vehemently with the notion that the program was destroying the local police’s reputation with the Latino community, but seemed to wash his hands of the decisions ICE officials make after someone has been turned over to them. “We don’t ask [people to turn themselves in],” he said. “You come to jail because you committed a crime. … This group we’ve worked with here, ICEI’ve been tickled to death. We turn it over to them, and they make those decisions.”

Harrison conceded that the system had flaws, but said he was unable to fix them due to “political pressure.” “I wish there was a way that the good people could get drivers’ licenses and stay here and work, because it would make my life 100 percent better.” (In March, lawmakers introduced a bill that would have done just that, but it died without receiving a vote in the House.)

In a statement, Morales says he and the other activists “disrupted the 287(g) forum at the Wake County Detention Center because 287(g) is a federal program that doesn’t work, makes our communities unsafe and targets indiscriminately immigrant communities. …We will organize our community to pressure the sheriff’s department in Wake County to end any and all collaboration with ICE. We won’t stop until Wake County is a safe place for all communities.”

Paul Blest is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. Respond to this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Priority targets”