In February, Sheriff Terry Johnson, known for his anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric, stood in front of the Board of Commissioners of Alamance County, North Carolina and requested nearly $3 million for a jail expansion. The county needed a bigger jail, he said, in order to lock up more people on behalf of the U.S. Marshals and ICE.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office previously participated in a federal program known as the 287(g) Program, in which local law enforcement collaborate with federal agencies to detain immigrants. Johnson, like other sheriffs who have requested local funding for local immigration enforcement partnerships, was explicit in stating the desire to profit off of the incarceration of immigrants.
Sheriffs have reasoned that 287(g) offers a good opportunity for counties because the federal government will reimburse them for the cost of detaining immigrants, and sometimes even pay out more than counties have spent. In localities across North Carolina, some of this revenue has been used to upfit local jails, pay personnel salaries, or eventually found its way back into a county’s general fund.
This arrangement has also served to give local law enforcement new power. As then-Sheriff of Henderson County Rick Davis remarked during a 2008 Board of Commissioners meeting, “It would give the Sheriff the discretion as to whether someone that is coming through the detention center with minor crimes would go through the deportation process.”
Davis also acknowledged the profit motive in his plan, not just to incarcerate immigrants but to further contribute to the over-reliance on bond/bail structures. “Henderson County will recover all cost then some,” he said.
But as these efforts to raise revenue on the backs of immigrants have unfolded over the past decade, the federal funds haven’t materialized as promised. It turns out that counties are often left footing the bills when federal reimbursements fall short.
Between 2015 and 2017, approximately 85 percent of immigrant removals in North Carolina’s 287(g) counties came from Mecklenberg and Wake counties, which both ended their participation in the program when new sheriffs were elected in 2018. In both places, the program costs covered by local government far outpaced federal reimbursements.
In 2016, Wake County spent at least $1.7 million on 287(g) but received only about $112,000 in return. In Mecklenburg, there was a staggering $3.6 million gap between what the county spent and the federal reimbursement it ultimately received. Areport released last month by the North Carolina Justice Center found that local collaborations with ICE cost taxpayers in this state at least $81.7 million over a decade. And yet officials in Wake, Mecklenburg, and other counties initially highlighted cost recovery as a reason to adopt 287(g).
Even counties that break even earn very little revenue from the program. In 2016, Cabarrus County made about $2,000 from participating in the 287(g) program. At a Board of Commissioners meeting the following year, Cabarrus County Sheriff Van Shaw expressed hope that the funds would increase “with the change in this country's leadership.”
Counties are not alone in banking on immigration enforcement. In 2017, about half of the roughly $3 million in SCAAP funding allocated to North Carolina went to the state government. Over the years, the state has bolstered 287(g) by allocating funds to the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association for training local law enforcement on how to participate in the program.
It’s a position that’s becoming increasingly untenable as activists have found that developing successful electoral strategies can end 287(g) partnerships.
And in previous legislative sessions, state lawmakers have tried to penalize localities for not complying with federal immigration law by cutting certain types of state funding. A similar proposal is currently under consideration withHouse Bill 135, which Republican State Rep. George Cleveland re-introduced in February. This proposed legislation would also implement a 287(g) program for state law enforcement officials falling under the purview of The Department of Public Safety.
Another piece of legislation, House Bill 370, would force local sheriffs to cooperate with ICE. It passed a full house vote in April, despite the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association requesting more time to review it and eventually opposing it. Currently it sits in the Senate and an expected “compromise” from the Sheriff’s Association is expected.
Despite dwindling federal funds for 287(g), ICE maintains that the program is important to its operations. During a recent interview onThe State of Things, Bryan Cox, Southern Communications Director for ICE, stated that the agency has limited resources to arrest immigrants and must depend on local Sheriffs and jails to hold immigrants for them.
“ICE is a federal law enforcement agency—it’s smaller than the NYC Police Department. We do not have the resources to arrest and deport everyone in the country unlawfully, even if this agency wanted to do so…”
But Cox’s portrayal of an under-resourced agency runs counter to the sweeping raids that spread terror across North Carolina communities in February, when ICE arrested more than 200 people in an operation that another ICE official called “the new normal.” It seems that as ICE expands, it would have counties continue assisting for free and/or with limited returns.
It’s an equation that North Carolina sheriffs are increasingly casting doubt upon. Shortly after Wake and Mecklenburg counties ended their contracts with ICE, Henderson County Sheriff Lowell Griffin hinted that he might decline to renew his county’s contract in May, saying that it was a burden to taxpayers. Though he ultimately decided to continue the collaboration, he still acknowledges the cost to his constituents. Henderson County Commissioners fully supported its continuation, no matter the cost.
So why are some sheriffs, like Johnson in Alamance, still claiming that participating in these ICE partnerships is a lucrative deal? It’s a position that’s becoming increasingly untenable as activists have found that developing successful electoral strategies can end 287(g) partnerships.
During the 2018 elections, Comunidad Colectiva—a Latinx grassroots group based in Charlotte,—brought the 287(g) program to the forefront of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff race. Activists attended fundraisers for candidates to question their platforms, positioned "No 287(g), Vote out Carmichael" signs around town, and canvassed within the Latino community to bring awareness about the local immigration enforcement partnership.
Although other issues accompanied the Sheriff election, Comunidad Colectiva’s actions garnered a great deal of media and community attention, even forcing some community members to respond by printing their own signs in support of the 287(g) program. This was paired with canvassing efforts by Action NC and the North Carolina ACLU, among others. By the end of the primary in May, 2018, the ACLU spent $175,000 in the race.
This is the kind of power-building that holds the promise of ending the inhumane treatment of immigrants for good while honing in on the role immigration enforcement plays in a wider prison industrial complex.
In Alamance County, NC, which previously operated with a 287(g) program before the Department of Justice launched an investigation into its implementation, the Sheriff was also up for re-election in 2018, but he did not face a challenger. That did not stop community members from Down Home NC, Siembra NC, and other community groups from drawing attention to the potential reinstatement of the 287(g) program.
These organizations adopted protest tactics not seen in the county since the inception of the program back in 2008, and even then they had joined with a national group on a “Chinga La Migra” tour. These organizations in particular quickly adjusted their strategy to include targeting and supporting county commissioners also up for election in November 2018.
Immigrant rights groups in Wake County have sustained some pressure against the Sheriff and the 287(g) program for years—particularly Comite Popular Somos Raleigh, a grassroots group made up predominantly of undocumented activists. In 2015, this group along with others waged a successful anti-287(g) campaign; the program had operated in the local jail since 2008. Sheriff Donnie Harrison lost his reelection bid to Gerald Baker. Harrison was one of the first Sheriffs in the state to want to adopt the 287(g) program and Baker ended it shortly after he took office.
These campaigns are also significant in how they have shifted the terrain of electoral organizing in North Carolina. They provided a political opportunity for nonvoters and grassroots groups to participate in a political realm they are typically neglected from. They made space for effective tactics that are often deemed too controversial for mainstream groups. And they diverged with the mainstream progressive playbook that focuses on “flipping” North Carolina from Red to Blue at the expense of challenging unjust practices implemented by Democrats, especially Sheriffs, unless there is a viable Democratic alternative.
The Sheriff elections in 2018 facilitated a space for the creation of black and brown coalitions that focused their attention on a hyper-local campaigns and solutions regarding a variety of issues, including 287(g). Local groups—spanning a variety of social movements—were able to join together to create platforms for Sheriffs and then endorse Sheriffs who chose to adopt issues on that platform. This is the kind of power-building that holds the promise of ending the inhumane treatment of immigrants for good while honing in on the role immigration enforcement plays in a wider prison industrial complex.