By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
CHARLOTTE -- Police here operated for years under what amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward illegal immigrants.
As elsewhere in the United States, law enforcement officers did not check the immigration status of people they came into contact with, and in the vast majority of cases, a run-in with the law carried little threat of deportation.
But that accommodation for the burgeoning illegal population ended abruptly in April, when the Mecklenburg County sheriff's office began to enforce immigration law, placing more than 100 people a month into deportation proceedings. Some of them had been charged with violent crimes, others with traffic infractions.
The program takes one of the most aggressive stances in the United States toward illegal immigrants, and officials in scores of communities, including Herndon and Loudoun County, have been considering adopting their own version. The House earlier this month was weighing a measure "reaffirming" the authority of local law enforcement agencies to arrest people on suspicion of violating immigration laws.
Some Latino leaders say the program here is contributing to a discriminatory climate in which Hispanic drivers feel as if they are being "hunted" by police. And some law enforcement agencies elsewhere have shied away from enforcing immigration laws, saying that doing so would rupture any trust they have developed in Latino neighborhoods.
But advocates see it as a way to catch illegal immigrants who slip through porous federal enforcement measures and then run afoul of state or local police.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph says there should be little sympathy for illegal immigrants caught by his program: They have already broken the law once by being here illegally, and then been arrested on suspicion of another crime.
"When any of them cross that border without proper documentation, they've violated the law -- however insignificant it may seem to some people," he said. "I've heard sad stories about folks wanting to come up here and have a better life and earn money for their family. I've arrested bank robbers who've had the same excuse."
While the program has led to the removal of many illegal immigrants charged with felonies, people arrested for lesser charges such as traffic violations are also subject to deportation. That, according to Hispanic leaders, has created a constant worry for people who are in the United States illegally and now fear deportation after a simple traffic stop.
Many illegal immigrants lack valid licenses. As a result, they now risk not only arrest but also deportation whenever they drive.
"It's tense, very tense," said Angeles Ortega-Moore, director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte. "It used to be everybody here loved the Latinos. They would say, 'We like you more than the blacks.' Now we're like the Big Bad Wolf."
"The law enforcement community is split on this issue," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The local agencies against enforcing immigration law "are concerned about the chilling effect it will have on immigrants' cooperation with law enforcement," he said.
In Mecklenburg County, about 1,200 foreign-born people have been arrested since April, on charges ranging from traffic violations and trespassing to sex crimes, and nearly 600 have been found to be here illegally.
Among those snared earlier this month was Guadalupe Lara, an 18-year-old Mexican carpenter.
The fifth of eight children born to farmworkers in Queretaro, he walked across the border when he was 16 to find work. Two years later, he has only a wispy beard and stands 5-foot-3.
He makes $7.50 an hour and lives with four others in a small, sparsely furnished apartment. Though they lack beds, they have a television on which Lara watches his favorite telenovela, "Heridas de Amor." He sends money home monthly and calls home every week.
"It's difficult," he said in Spanish. "When I call they say 'How are you?' I say 'I am fine.' " On Monday night, Lara was pulled over by police after buying a pack of cigarettes. He was not drunk but had an open bottle of beer in the car. He also lacked a license. He was arrested and when asked admitted he had no papers.
Had he been detained elsewhere, his illegal status may not have mattered.
But in Mecklenburg, two sergeants and 10 deputies at the jail are trained to handle immigration infractions, running checks in databases and holding people in custody if necessary.
Some of those arrested face immediate deportation. Some are held on bond pending an immigration hearing. Lara was relatively lucky. Because he had no prior immigration or criminal charges, he was given a notice to appear before an immigration judge in Atlanta and released. He is likely to be ordered deported.
Lara says police now unfairly target Latinos. More than 90 percent of the illegal immigrants discovered in Mecklenburg are from Latin America.
"The police are just looking for problems with Hispanics," Lara said. "They know we don't have driver's licenses -- we can't get them -- and so they pull us over."
Liliana "La Chula" Ramos, a host on local Spanish radio, said: "A lot of people here are very afraid because they think the police will pull them over for anything. It's very difficult for people to get licenses now, and people have to go to work, so they're out there driving."
Philip Turtletaub, a Charlotte immigration lawyer, says he sometimes receives six or seven calls a day from relatives of illegal immigrants caught by the program. He tells them not to waste their money.
"Most people I can't do anything for," he said.
While he ventured no opinion on the program's fairness, he said he thinks it could make life as an illegal immigrant in the region so uncomfortable that fewer illegal immigrants would choose to live there.
"They're putting the pressure on these people. They're scaring them. People say we can't deport 10 million. But you don't have to. If you deport enough of them, others will go back voluntarily because they don't want to live in these conditions."
Besides Mecklenburg, six other state and local law enforcement agencies have started similar programs in recent years. A dozen more are being worked out with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And in the past three months, hundreds of state and local departments have inquired about similar efforts, said Robert J. Hines, who heads the program for the ICE.
"When you are removing the criminal element from the community, it's hard to point a finger and say it's a bad thing," Hines said.
Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said his department is considering participating. Early this morning, the Herndon Town Council was to vote on Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers Jr.'s request to apply for such a program.
Officials in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William said they are not considering the idea, and police officials in suburban Maryland say there is lukewarm interest in deputizing officers to enforce immigration laws.
"In the Montgomery County area, we've taken more the track that we celebrate diversity," said Gaithersburg Police Chief Mary Ann Viverette, who is also the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Immigration is "not an issue we want to enforce."
In federal testimony from August, Pendergraph, the Mecklenburg County sheriff, said "political correctness" is preventing some communities from adopting the program, and that "will eventually be the downfall of this country if someone doesn't wake up."
Like much of the mid-Atlantic region, Charlotte has seen a rapid rise in the number of Latino immigrants over the past 15 years, many of them here illegally. Between 2000 and 2005, the estimated number of illegal immigrants in North Carolina rose 38 percent, from 260,000 to 360,000, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.
The influx, particularly conspicuous in a metropolis clinging to its small-town past, has caused ripples of concern.
"Texas, New York and California might be used to large influxes of illegal immigrants -- but we're not," said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, who favors stronger enforcement. "James Carville had it right: We're just Mayberry with a major airport."
Local support for broad enforcement coalesced in July 2005 after a truck driven by an illegal immigrant whose blood-alcohol level was nearly triple the legal limit, hit a car, killing a local teacher and leaving the teacher's wife in a vegetative state. The accident resulted in Ramiro Gallegos's fifth impaired-driving charge in five years -- and led to the new enforcement policy.
"No more excuses," U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R) said at a news conference at the time, calling for tougher enforcement. "You're drunk. You're driving. You're illegal. You're deported. Period."
Staff writers Bill Turque, Karin Brulliard, Ernesto Londoño and Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report.