Durham Police pursue the letter of immigration law, UNC study shows

By Katy Millberg
Latino Beat Editor
the Durham VOICE/ Carrboro Commons

Many North Carolina officials are abusing privileges afforded to them by a program titled 287 (g) according to a recent study published by the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mai Nguyen, co-author of the study said that local authorities have made it a policy to carry out the program only as it was intended to be carried out and have made it a point not to abuse the program’s privileges.

Durham Police Department headquarters

The program 287 (g) trains officers “how to assist ICE with identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants,” said Hannah Gill, co-author of the study.

It was designed to “encounter foreign-born criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat to national security or public safety,” according to the Web site of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the federal Department of Homeland Security that oversees the program.

The UNC-CH study found that officials in several North Carolina counties are not simply using the program to deport undocumented immigrants who have demonstrated a potential threat to society, but are deporting undocumented immigrants after intercepting them because of driving violations.

According to Nguyen, the program is being adopted mostly by sheriffs’ offices that have county-wide jurisdiction, but the Durham Police Department has joined the program as an independent, city-wide participant.

Nguyen said that the Durham police are utilizing the resources afforded to them to identify and report undocumented immigrants who have been accused of committing felonies. “I would really praise the city of Durham for the way in which they have implemented this program,” she said.

The UNC-CH study indicates that neither the Orange County Sherriff’s Department nor any of the town police departments within it have expressed any interest in joining the program 287 (g). Hannah Gill, co-author of the study reported that Orange County participates in a different, but similar program called Secure Communities.

According the UNC-CH study, eight North Carolina counties have adopted the program, and the five included in the study, Alamance, Cabarrus, Gaston, Mecklenburg and Wake, deported nearly 9,552 between January 2001 and April 2009. Nearly 87 percent of those deportations resulted after individuals were accused of committing misdemeanor crimes, and only 13 percent resulted after individuals were accused of committing felonies.

Gill reported that the way some counties are implementing this of this program by officials is causing some long-term negative effects in North Carolina. She posed the question, “What happens when a community is scared of its police?”

Gill said that the undocumented immigrant population has become very hesitant to call 911 to report crimes and have been reluctant to serve as witnesses to crimes for fear of deportation. She said that immigrants who do have proper documentation are also negatively impacted by the program.

“If the local community doesn’t trust their law enforcement, police officers can’t do their jobs,” commented Nguyen.

Nguyen also said that the Durham police, in addition to sticking to the purpose of the program and not attempting to deport people after intercepting them because of misdemeanors, have “really tried to reach out into the community to tell them they aren’t out to get them.”

But, she said, “Even though they are doing like they should, they still feel negative effects because of rumors and spillover from other counties.”

Executive Director of El Centro Hispano, a Latino support center in Durham planning to open a branch in Carrboro this spring, Pilar Rocha-Goldberg said, “Many Latinos are afraid to call 911 during an emergency because they are afraid they will be deported.” The Durham Police have teamed up with El Centro Hispano in the past to reach out to and build positive relationships with members of the Latino community.

Both Nguyen and Gill suggested that the best way to resolve the problems caused by the misuse of the program 287 (g) would be to implement the program the way it was intended to be implemented and to only put people through the program if they are undocumented immigrants who pose a threat to national security.

Gill said, “You would probably want to follow the model that the Durham Police Department uses.