Mar 1, 2017 - News

Why immigration policy has become a flashpoint in Charlotte

Though immigration policy is decided at the federal level, it has become a flashpoint in Charlotte since President Donald Trump took office vowing to crack down on illegal immigration.

Thousands of people demonstrated in the streets for a “Day Without Immigrants” in mid-February. And a group of protestors shut down the Charlotte City Council meeting Monday night with their shouts for the city to do more to protect undocumented workers.

The issue has particular resonance in Charlotte, a city with one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the nation.

As of 2015, Mecklenburg County had an estimated 132,320 residents of Latino ancestry, about 12 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was up 17 percent from the year 2010.

Does local law enforcement enforce immigration laws here in Charlotte?

Charlotte law enforcement’s stance on how to handle undocumented immigrants has shifted some in recent years but the main thrust has remained the same.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department does not enforce immigration laws and says it does not profile people based on their perceived immigration status. Police officials have long said that they want to build trust with the undocumented community so they can better protect the city.

Police officers do, however, share information with federal authorities on immigration status.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, takes things further. Under Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, the county force has since 2006 participated in the federal 287(g) program. This means the county identifies people arrested in Mecklenburg County who are in the country illegally, detains them, and hands them over to U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement. 

Under the Obama administration, that identification hasn’t meant an automatic deportation. That could change under the Trump administration.

Are federal immigration agents active in Charlotte?


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement publicly revealed in early February that agents had scooped up 84 people in North Carolina as part of an immigration raid. At least some of them were in Charlotte.

One school-age girl told the City Council last week that her father was picked up by ICE officials in early February, without giving more details.

Teachers of a Spanish education program said they were “harassed” by immigrations officers, but we were not able to confirm details.

ICE officials told the Agenda they do not conduct checkpoints or indiscriminately target people, but do conduct targeted enforcement actions.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains a field office in southwest Charlotte. Enforcement actions are typically conducted as surprises, which has intensified anxiety in the immigrant community.

Often actions will target undocumented immigrants who have been previously convicted of crimes, but agents will often arrest other people nearby suspected of being in the country illegally, according to multiple reports.

Is Charlotte a sanctuary city?

This buzzword essentially means that the city has created a list of protections that shield undocumented immigrants living there from deportation. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement relies heavily on local law enforcement to find and detain undocumented immigrants. In sanctuary cities, local law enforcement is barred from participating.

Some prevent police officers from asking about immigration status or turning information over to federal authorities on immigration status. Others prevent jail officials from turning people over to immigration officers.

There is no formal legal definition of a sanctuary city. But by most accepted definitions, Charlotte is not a sanctuary city.

The following major cities are generally regarded as sanctuary cities:

  • New York City
  • Chicago
  • Los Angeles
  • Philadelphia
  • Detroit
  • Seattle
  • San Francisco
  • Boston
  • Denver
  • Washington, D.C.

Are we sure?

It’s a narrow line. Mayor Jennifer Roberts has publicly said that Charlotte police do not enforce immigration laws, and some conservative lawmakers have warned that she is toeing the “sanctuary city” line.

A North Carolina law passed in 2015 sought to prohibit sanctuary cities by requiring local police from sharing information on immigration status with federal officials. Charlotte rewrote some of its city codes to comply.

A petition asking Roberts to push for Charlotte to be a sanctuary city has about 1,600 signatures.

This issue threatens to become the next big blow-up between the state legislature in Raleigh and the city of Charlotte.

A new bill pending in the state legislature would tighten requirements around how cities enforce immigration law.

What do the protestors want?

A group called Comunidad Colectiva has published several demands for the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. These include:

  • Ending participation in the 287(g) program
  • Public denouncement of ICE activity in Charlotte
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to end information sharing with immigration agents
  • Charlotte taxpayers to fund legal defense for undocumented immigrants

Can Charlotte even do that?

Not without running afoul of state law or N.C. legislators. The City Council could presumably denounce ICE and give money to immigrant defense, but that would anger Republican lawmakers already on edge over Charlotte’s treatment of immigration law. Voters may not be too keen on that use of public money, either.

Charlotte could not direct CMPD to stop sharing information with the federal government without breaking.

The sheriff’s office could end its participation in 287(g), but Sheriff Carmichael has given no indication he would be interested in such a thing.

What are Charlotte city officials saying about it?

Mayor Jennifer Roberts and City Council members have tried to explain that their hands are somewhat tied by federal and state law, but those explanations were met Monday with shouts that they were cowards.

“The only thing I’m going to say is we hear you, we see you,” Roberts said before the meeting was shouted to a close. “We see your fear and we know that federal directives have brought fear to our community. I would encourage you to raise your voices with our federal officials.”

City Councilwoman Lawana Mayfield said on Twitter that it “would be nice” if the protestors appeared to the county board of commissioners of sheriff instead.

Protestors generally want city officials to be louder advocates for the immigrant community.

What happens next?

The city will be closely watching the new “sanctuary city” bill in the state legislature to see if it will impact the police department.


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