Criticism of how Charlotte’s law enforcers uphold immigration laws and calls for a stronger commitment from local elected officials in defending immigrant rights dominated the discussion at Tuesday night’s public conversation on local immigration policy. The Charlotte Talks event, broadcast live on WFAE, attracted a large crowd at the McGlohon Theater.
It’s estimated that there are about 11 million immigrants in the country illegally and Margaret Commins, International Studies director at Queens University, says this isn’t the the first time that there have been major efforts to limit legal and illegal immigration.
“But this is a dynamic we’ve seen time and gain in our history,” Commins said. “This is the second largest immigration period in our history. We had another large period between 1890 and 1920 and you had the same sort of backlash against immigration. In fact it ended up in the 1920s with a series of laws that restricted immigration to European and Northern European heritage.”
Some panelists and audience members questioned the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department’s participation in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, 287G, immigrant enforcement program. The County is one of 37 law enforcement agencies nationally that works with ICE when they come across people here illegally. County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael told the crowd that there’s a lot of misinformation about his deputies’ role in the program.
“It’s like social media. There’s so much information that people are putting up,” Carmichael said. “They’re saying that we’re involved in roundups, in enforcement outside our facilities. Absolutely not. My deputies do not participate in anything other than inside our facility. The only way to have contact with them is you gonna have to be arrested and brought into our facility and committed a crime.”
Oliver Merino, a panelist who came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old countered and said, “Just because you’re accused of a crime doesn’t mean you are a criminal.”
Merino helped organize the recent Day Without Immigrants rally in Charlotte and participated in a protest Monday that ended up in a shouting match at Monday’s City Council meeting and an early adjournment. Merino says he realizes immigration policy is under federal authority but he called on local elected officials to offer more support.
“What we wanted from the city council and mayor to say is that they reject any kind of ICE activity in Charlotte and that they stand against the 287G program and none of them could say that,” Merino said. “The ICE activities in the heart of the immigrant community on the east side is not happening in Ballentyne, Meyers Park or South End. If our city is not standing behind us, who can we count on?
Others spoke about immigrants being detained in recent weeks who are here illegally but have been allowed to stay as long as they check in regularly with authorities. A teacher talked about her students being afraid that their parents would be picked up from work or home and deported while they were in school or having to go back to countries themselves where they felt their lives were threatened.
But Ron Woodward of the conservative NC Listen group played down the fear factor and made no apologies for the Trump Administration’s stricter immigration policies.
“If you are here legally, you have no reason to fear,” Woodard said. “We allow one million immigrants in every year, Hispanics and Asians are treated generously. This notion that we need to apologize to ask people to obey our laws.”
Woodward says businesses who knowingly hire undocumented should be called to task and law enforcement should go after the more than 50 percent of immigrants who came to the U.S. on legal visas but stayed after they expired.
All in all, there were few answers to the many questions and concerns raised during the discussion. But panelists and audience members all seemed to agree on one thing—the immigration system is broken and needs a major fix.