During Donnie Harrison’s tenure as Wake County sheriff from 2002 to 2018, he embraced the 287(g) program, a controversial initiative that allowed his deputies to enforce certain federal immigration laws.

Now, as a candidate looking to be sheriff once again, he says he won’t reinstate the program.

“This is about me looking around and saying, ‘How can I make the streets of Wake County safer?’” Harrison says in an interview with INDY Week.

The new attitude toward the program for the Republican candidate may seem surprising, since as recently as April he supported 287(g), Bolts magazine reported. It’s not a change of heart or regrets that are altering his stance, Harrison and a spokesperson say. Instead, Harrison says, new technology and protocols used by the jail-booking agency in Wake County are “just a better system.”

In a statement, Harrison called 287(g) “obsolete.”

With a promise from President Joe Biden to end the program, the protocols of the City-County Bureau of Identification, which is not under the sheriff’s purview, are the way of the future for Harrison.

While the specter of 287(g), which the Wake sheriff’s department hasn’t used since 2018, seems to be fading in the county and Harrison says he has no plans to bring it back if reelected, immigrant advocates and activist groups say Harrison’s new position is too little, too late.

Harrison, and the history and future of 287(g)

The 287(g) program was enacted as part of federal immigration law in 1996 but was ramped up in the post-9/11 years. The program hit its peak federal funding from 2010 to 2013, according to the American Immigration Council.

The program let officers with North Carolina police agencies act as agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if an agreement was signed between the two. Police officers were empowered to start the process of deporting people after ICE training.

Harrison was one of the first sheriffs in North Carolina to sign up for the program in 2007.

The 287(g) program “was the closest thing I had then to see who was here and was wanted,” Harrison says.

If a person was arrested and suspected of being from another country, a 287(g)-authorized officer inside a jail could screen the immigration status of the person by asking a series of questions, including what country they were from, and checking their fingerprints in ICE databases. Those databases would tell whether a person was wanted by ICE for something like an expired visa or green card. If a 287(g) officer suspected a person was an immigrant, the officer had virtually no barriers to screening them.

Since ICE keeps records of every person who has immigration documents, being screened but not showing up in the ICE database “flags the inmate as a possible illegal alien,” according to a 2009 article on North Carolina sheriffs’ perspectives on 287(g) in Popular Government, a magazine published by the UNC School of Government.

The Henderson County sheriff at the time, Rick Davis, described a system susceptible to abuse.

“The 287(g) program establishes a record on 100 percent of the people who come into our facility,” Davis said in the Popular Government article. “They either have fingerprints on file, or they don’t. In the case where ICE doesn’t have prints on file, the burden of proof is on the detainee to verify his or her identity. It is one of the rare times in U.S. law when the burden of proof is on the accused.”

Immigrant advocates rallied against the program, saying it was breaking up families for minor offenses, like traffic violations, and that it actually worsened crime by scaring immigrants from calling police for fear of their status being checked. The program destroyed lives so sheriffs could pander for votes with anti-immigrant politics, critics said. They also lambasted local and county police for doing the work of federal agents instead of protecting local communities.

From the time Harrison adopted the program up until his interview with INDY Week this month, he spoke of the program as a way to remove criminals from Wake County.

“We’re finding people who are wanted in other states and other counties,” Harrison was quoted as saying in 2008 in the Popular Government article. “We’re getting criminals off the street that need to be gotten off the street.”

The article said Harrison “takes satisfaction in knowing that he’s ‘not letting a child molester or murderer back on the street.’”

In the first six months of the program, the Wake sheriff’s office sent more than 900 people who were arrested to ICE for hearings on their immigration status, according to the article.

In 2016 and 2017, ICE deported almost 500 people from Wake County through the program, Bolts reported, citing research by Appalachian State University sociologist Felicia Arriaga.

But studies and a federal investigation found the program wasn’t netting hardened criminals and confirmed what the immigrant advocates claimed. A 2010 UNC study on the program’s effects in the state found that 287(g) had a chilling effect on Hispanic community members reporting crime and talking to police. The program wasn’t incarcerating violent offenders but mostly people charged with traffic violations, the study found. A U.S. Justice Department investigation concluded in 2012 that the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, which used 287(g), had engaged in a pattern of discrimination against Latino residents. The Justice Department sued the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office for racial discrimination and settled the suit under agreements that changes would be made. Federal authorities ended the 287(g) agreement in Alamance County.

Though no federal or state probes were ever opened on Harrison, in sticking with the program and in the eyes of critics, he found himself in the same class as much-maligned anti-immigrant hardliners like Sheriff Terry Johnson of Alamance County and Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was found to be detaining people without charges for ICE to pick up. A federal judge found Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt of court for, in part, not stopping baseless arrests, but Trump pardoned Arpaio the night before he was to be sentenced to up to six months in prison.

At a 2016 forum attended by mostly Central American immigrants and reported on by The News & Observer, a 13-year-old talked about 287(g) in terms that distilled it down to what critics really thought and, possibly, what they thought of Harrison. The 13-year-old called 287(g) “a racist program.”

Despite the studies and lawsuit, the program saw a resurgence in North Carolina in 2020 after ICE created a new kind of agreement for state police officers to execute ICE warrants following executive orders by former president Donald Trump that enacted his anti-immigrant policies by expanding the program. In 2019 and 2020, 15 state agencies, including the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, signed new agreements to implement the 287(g) program.

Biden has yet to take action to significantly reduce or end the Trump-era 287(g) program expansion though he promised to do so while campaigning, leaving open the possibility of more North Carolina police agencies signing up.

That possibility makes Harrison’s movement away from the program all the more significant. Or maybe he’s recognizing political realities in Wake County.

‘The stigma’

The 287(g) program has a “stigma of racial profiling,” Harrison’s campaign consultant Brad Crone says.

“How many Germans, how many French were deported under 287(g)?” Crone asks.

The program is an albatross hanging on Harrison’s neck.

In 2018, current Democratic sheriff Gerald Baker campaigned on ending the Wake sheriff’s office 287(g) agreement and defeated Harrison by nearly 10 percent. Biden won Wake County by nearly 30 percent over Trump two years later.

The political winds in Wake that saw Harrison to four terms as sheriff have changed, but he says it’s not politics that are causing him to distance himself from 287(g)—it’s new background-checking technology with the City-County Bureau of Identification.

The new technology “is exactly what I needed,” Harrison says. “At least I know that I won’t be letting people back out on the streets that are wanted. That’s the key right there.”

The City-County Bureau books people into jail who are arrested in Wake County. Staff with the bureau photograph, fingerprint, and identify people. Their fingerprinting system is tapped into state and federal databases that can show if a person is wanted on other criminal warrants.

Unlike sheriff’s offices with 287(g) have done, the bureau doesn’t fingerprint for minor traffic violations, according to its procedures manual.

The bureau’s process is “universal,” Harrison says. “Everybody is screened …. It doesn’t matter, race, age, sex, or nationality.”

Harrison says he won’t hold arrested people that ICE wants detained unless presented with a federal warrant. The days of ICE calling, asking for the sheriff’s office to hold someone, and the office obliging won’t be coming back if Harrison is elected, Crone says. But if ICE or other federal agencies present a warrant, Harrison will hold a person.

If elected, “we’re going to come up with a system, and will everybody agree with it? No,” Harrison says. “I could care less what people think as long as I know I’m doing the right thing to keep people safe.”

Critics and opponents

A day after WRAL reported on August 29 that Harrison no longer supported 287(g), immigrant advocates and social justice groups responded.

La Fuerza NC, the ACLU of North Carolina, Advance Carolina, and Emancipate Votes put out a joint statement that says, “Harrison’s reversal on the sheriff’s role in deporting immigrants from Wake County comes too late.”

“While this position change is a step in the right direction, we cannot forget the harm caused by policies he implemented when previously in office,” the statement reads.

The fact that Harrison says he will honor an ICE warrant if someone who comes into the county jail has such a warrant isn’t acceptable in the eyes of the coalition leaders.

“Agreements under 287(g) are just one way that sheriffs collaborate with ICE, and in fact, a sheriff can help ICE deport people even without a formal contract,” the coalition’s statement reads. “Our organizations maintain our unwavering support for our communities and staunch opposition to ICE collaboration of any kind by sheriffs in North Carolina.”

Willie Rowe, the Democratic contender for Wake County sheriff, told INDY Week that the 287(g) program wasn’t cost effective and did “more harm than good.” He wouldn’t reinstate it, he says.

The fiscal cost of the program has been cited as a reason why some counties did away with or never adopted the program. The 2010 UNC study estimated that annually 287(g) cost Mecklenburg County nearly $5.3 million and Alamance County nearly $4.8 million. Those costs considered training and salaries for 287(g) officers as well as the costs of detaining people. Detaining people was by far the highest expense, amounting to about 90 percent of the entire cost in both counties.

Beyond the money the program sucks up, it also hinders building trust in communities and building a law enforcement agency that’s reflective of the county, Rowe says.

Of 287(g), Rowe says, “It’s over with.”  

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio was sentenced to prison for not stopping baseless arrests of immigrants. In fact, Arpaio was pardoned by President Trump the night before he was supposed to be sentenced to up to six months in prison. Arpaio went on to lose his reelection. 

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