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A County Sheriff Election in North Carolina Sheds Light on a Controversial ICE Policy

The winner has vowed to discontinue a program that allows local sheriffs' offices to function as satellite immigration detention centers.
Demonstrators opposing proposition 287(g) gather on July 16th, 2007, in Waukegan, Illinois.

Demonstrators opposing proposition 287(g) gather on July 16th, 2007, in Waukegan, Illinois.

Candidates in the primary race for sheriff of Mecklenburg County attracted national attention as they centered their arguments around the county's controversial 287(g) program, which allows local sheriffs' offices to partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and become satellite immigration detention centers.

At its core, 287(g) authorizes select state and local law enforcement agencies to engage in federal immigration enforcement activities. It authorizes the director of ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, allowing designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.

Officials announced late Tuesday night that former homicide detective Gary McFadden had won the race to become sheriff of Mecklenburg County, which encompasses Charlotte, North Carolina, and the surrounding metro area. McFadden will replace incumbent Irwin Carmichael who was an outspoken supporter of the 287(g) program.

McFadden had long opposed 287(g), calling it an agreement that fostered mistrust in the community. He told The Intercept that, if elected sheriff, he would discontinue the agreement.

This shift in power will likely lead to a dissolution of 287(g) in Mecklenburg County and a victory for the many community groups who oppose it.

Community activists were outspoken on this issue prior to Tuesday's election: In March, 45 groups signed a letter calling on Carmichael to terminate the county's participation in the program. The American Civil Liberties Union has also strongly opposed the 287(g) program, asserting that it has led to "illegal racial profiling and civil rights abuses while diverting scarce resources from traditional local law enforcement functions and distorting immigration enforcement priorities."

"While your office continues to highlight a handful of cases of individuals with serious crimes, the fact is that a great majority of deportations under the 287(g) program are due to minor offenses," the letter states. "The sheriff's office is deporting fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, disrupting and separating families in the process."

Carmichael has defended 287(g) on Fox News, saying in March that "[a] lot of folks always say that we are ripping families apart. Again, I always tell everyone, you will never ever encounter this program unless you're arrested and charged with a crime and brought to our jail."

However, North Carolina police officers changed their behavior after signing on to the 287(g) program, according to a report released in 2007, just one year after the program was implemented. "Law enforcement officers pulled over Hispanic-appearing drivers under the pretense of a traffic infraction, but with the intention of determining immigration status," the report found.

Another study, published four years after Mecklenburg County introduced the program, investigated the consequences of 287(g) in North Carolina communities in part by examining local news reports and public statements regarding 287(g) and immigration. Researchers found that some public figures alleged that unauthorized immigrants are "inherently more deviant," and more likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans because they "consciously entered or remained in the country illegally."

"We are optimistic that brighter days are ahead for the residents of Mecklenburg County and its diverse immigrant community," Héctor Vaca, Charlotte director of the advocacy group Action NC, said in a statement. "The eventual elimination of the 287(g) program, along with the other reforms McFadden supports, are a very positive step for everyone in the Charlotte region."