The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department is one of just 37 agencies to participate in a federal program known as 287(g). It allows deputies to take part in enforcing federal immigration laws.
Participation in the program is voluntary and controversial.
On Thursday the Sheriff's Department hoped to answer questions about 287-G by allowing reporters to walk through the process.
The main job of the Sheriff's Department is simple, it runs the jails in Mecklenburg County.
This walk through was held at the main jail in uptown, but it began in a conference room one floor above central booking. That's where Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael stepped to the podium. "I am here today to clarify our role and hopefully dispel the rumors about what we do," in terms of the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
The 287(g) program was launched in 1996 as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Originally there were two parts to the program. One allowed officers trained by federal agents to take part in on the street task forces to identify and round up illegal immigrants. That lead to allegations of racial profiling and other complaints and the task forces were disbanded in 2012.
But the other part of 287(g) remains in place. And since 2006 the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department has been an active participant. "The 287(g) program operation strictly is within the Mecklenburg County jail," said Carmichael. "In other words no one encounters 287(g) deputies unless they are arrested, charged with a crime and brought to the Mecklenburg County Jail." Where specially trained deputies screen all suspects, he said, to determine their immigration status. What happens next, Carmichael stated, is up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents, or ICE for short. "At no time does the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department make a decision as to whether an individual is removed from the United States," the sheriff added, "We do not make decisions on who gets deported."
We'll have more on this screening process in a moment.
Carmichael took time to state why his department is involved in 287(g). It's all about the safety he said.
"Since I've been sheriff, we've been able to identify an individual who was arrested for four murders. Because of the 287(g) program we were able to identify he was in this country unlawfully. A man here illegally, a citizen, national of Mexico was arrested for 15 counts of felony child abuse and inflicting serious, physical injury and 15 counts of false imprisonment. Another person here illegally, a citizen and national of Honduras was arrested for felony possession of a weapon of mass destruction. It's about safety and security of our facility and the one million plus citizens of Mecklenburg County."
Carmichael left this press conference without taking questions. Leaving unanswered how knowing the immigration status of these incarcerated individuals made anyone safer.
The actual tour of how the 287(g) program works started with a walk through a secure, underground parking lot which leads to a large metal door. "This is the door of no return," said Captain Daniel Stitt, our tour guide. He runs the 287(g) program in Mecklenburg County. "The arrestees are brought here and the process starts."
First, they go through that metal door and they're walked up to a counter where every suspect, Stitt says is asked a series of questions. Two of which are: what country are you a citizen or natural of and where were you born. "Anything other than U.S. to either of those two questions will trigger that 287(g) interview. Now that interview could last for 30 seconds or it could last for a couple of hours."
Carried out, Stitt continued, by one of eight deputies seated at a row of partitioned desks. "Those officers are trained by ICE, they attend a school that is put on by ICE and paid for by ICE. I'm not going to get into those details, that is for them and through their training."
But Stitt did add some of the questions go into how an individual entered the country.
And it's important to note all this takes place when an individual is simply charged of a crime. That can range from serious felonies to something like a DUI.
If an individual is deemed to be in the country illegally, the deputies then alert ICE who can, in turn, ask for that person to be held. Stitt would not detail how long those holds usually take. "They are all case by case."
But he did say the Sheriff's Department will hold the individual until ICE arrives. It costs money to keep someone in jail and ICE pays for the extra time in detention.
There has been a lot of news lately about immigration crackdowns. The Department of Homeland Security has issued guidelines vastly expanding the number of people considered deportation priorities. And President Donald Trump has called the effort a "military operation." The president also said, "We're getting really bad dudes out of this country at a rate that nobody's ever seen before."
The Sheriff's Department no longer appears to publish the number of people deported under 287(g). But thousands have been turned over to ICE.
Asked if there's been an increase in 287(g) activity here in Mecklenburg, Captain Stitt simply said, "my answer is no."
That does not mean there has not been more immigration arrests however.
"I think we can see there's a clear difference in the way ICE is behaving and the way ICE has behaved," said Atenas Burrola, an immigration lawyer and director of the Immigrant Integration Center with the Latin American Coalition. "We do have confirmed reports of people being picked up between home and work, between home and school, outside their work."
All this, she says, breeds fear in the immigrant community. And a growing distrust in law enforcement officers regardless of their uniform.