Western North Carolina’s two most populous counties have differing policies when it comes to working with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Buncombe County’s Sheriff last month made a very public commitment to not honor immigration holds in the detention facility. Meantime, the sheriff in neighboring Henderson County seems poised to continue cooperating in an agreement with ICE, which is up for renewal in June.
Policing immigration became an immediate topic of concern for local law enforcement after ICE arrested 270 individuals in North Carolina in Feb.
Nearly a week after the targeted raids, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller held a press conference to draw a clear line between his office and federal immigration officials.
“I think it’s right for us to make a stand, I think it’s right for us to us to speak out now, and in addition to that, we cannot live in fear,” Miller said at the press conference.
Local immigrant rights advocates heralded Miller’s announcement as a gesture defending the local immigrant community.
“With the ICE attacks we saw in the Eastern part of the state...we knew something had to give. We’re thankful for what Sheriff Quentin Miller has been doing,” Bruno Hinojosa, co-director of the non-profit Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción, or CIMA, said. .
While Miller says he wants to see fewer immigrant detentions, his decision could actually lead to more. That’s because ICE says it’s ramping up its presence in counties where local law enforcement refuses to cooperate.
“So a consequence of local law enforcement not cooperating with ICE, is ICE has no choice but to do more enforcement on its own,” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said.
Cox says that’s what happened last month in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties, which saw the majority of those ICE arrests in North Carolina. Those two counties also severed agreements with ICE. Cox says it’s a matter of when, not if, another rash of arrests will happen in Buncombe County.
“Given the local policy change in Buncombe County, residents there should expect to see a more visible ICE presence in the future, because ICE has no choice but to do so,” Cox said.
Nevertheless, Sheriff Miller says he stands by his decision and “will not be intimidated by the spread of false information and fear tactics.”
By contrast, neighboring Henderson County is the only Western county to still have a 287g agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That means certain officers in local law enforcement are authorized to conduct interrogations, serve arrest warrants and detain those suspected of being in the country illegally.
“The only time that we come in contact with somebody that’s illegal that we’re questioning their immigration status is after they’re already inside our detention facility because another crime has been committed,” Henderson County Sheriff Lowell Griffin said.
While Henderson County is less populous than Buncombe, the Latinx population is more concentrated, at more than 10 percent. Griffin says the last month’s ICE arrests in Henderson County caused a panic throughout the local Latinx community. He says it made it difficult for his deputies to continue their duties patrolling the community. It’s one of several challenges weighing on the Sheriff, as he considers whether to continue the agreement with ICE, which is up for renewal in June.
“Haven’t made a decision. We’re still working, and we’re evaluating a lot of things. There’s a lot of things to consider,” Griffin said. “Manpower, is number one. We get absolutely no moneys from the federal government for participating in this program. Basically, it falls on the backs of the local taxpayers.”
Sheriff Griffin says he supports ICE’s work enforcing immigration. But if he does renew the contract, he says he would request certain modifications, such as limiting the scope to only include arrestees with a felony conviction.
So far, ICE has confirmed the arrest of two men during its raid on Feb. 13 in Henderson County. Hector David Aldana Menjivar of El Salvador was arrested on felony charges, for an alleged robbery in 1991. When officers found him, they also arrested Edwin Mejia Acosta, of Honduras, ICE said. Immigrant rights advocates are looking into whether the courts can intervene on behalf of Mejia-Acosta, to be spared from deportation.
ICE says both currently being held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.