Durham reports drop in robbery of Hispanics

Staff WriterAugust 7, 2008 

  • Since July 1, jails in Wake, Cumberland and Henderson counties have had the ability to check the identities and citizenship status of foreign-born inmates through the 287(g) program, named for a provision in federal law. They join Alamance, Cabarrus, Gaston and Mecklenburg counties in having the ability to begin deportation procedures for detained illegal immigrants.

    Since Wake started checking statuses last month, 127 people have been identified as illegal immigrants and targeted for deportation proceedings once they leave jail or when their criminal cases are disposed of. Of those, 32 are charged with driving while impaired, 27 with assault and 25 with traffic violations. Five have been arrested on suspicion of murder; 11, drugs; three, sex crimes; and two, robbery.

    Most sheriffs tout the program as a way to keep violent offenders off U.S. streets. Advocates say the program has led to increases in arrests for traffic violations. It is unlawful to drive without a driver's license; most illegal immigrants are unlicensed because legal residency is required to obtain one.

— Reports of robberies targeting Hispanic immigrants have declined sharply in Durham since January, when an abrupt rise led to heightened safety awareness across the city.

Durham police statistics show there were 138 robberies in January, and almost half of the victims -- 65 -- were Hispanic. Robberies targeting Hispanics fell by about half in February and March. In April, May and June, there were 16 or fewer such robberies per month.

Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. says community outreach efforts, targeted patrols and arrests of those responsible for the crimes have brought about the decline.

Others are skeptical. Leonor Clavijo, spokeswoman for El Centro Hispano, a Durham Hispanic advocacy group, suspects that some crimes are going unreported because the victims, many of whom entered the country illegally, fear that officers will check their immigration status.

Clavijo and others say tougher enforcement policies implemented in recent months have made it difficult for illegal immigrants to trust police.

Safety fears increased in January when the year's first two homicides were linked to robberies; one victim was an immigrant from Honduras and the other a Duke graduate student from India who, police speculated, might have been thought by his attackers to be Hispanic. Several other January robbery victims also were shot.

Police say Hispanic immigrants are frequent crime targets because many carry a lot of cash or keep it at home instead of using banks. The trend is also seen elsewhere: About 30 robberies targeting Hispanics occurred in the downtown Raleigh area within the past several months.

Jails check status

Some county jails in North Carolina, notably in Wake and Alamance, have begun checking the immigration status of anyone brought to the jail and starting deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants under an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo, a statewide Latino advocacy group, said many immigrants are unfamiliar with the difference between a city officer and a county deputy or don't understand jurisdictional boundaries. So when they hear that a few jails are checking the immigration status of detainees, they think all jails are doing it.

In Durham, one police officer has been trained to check immigration status. But Lopez, the police chief, said that officer will make an inquiry only if a person is involved in a major crime, not in minor violations such as driving without a license.

State law allows jails to check the immigration status of all suspects charged with a felony or DWI, which the Durham jail does, by asking the suspect or checking documentation. If a person doesn't have proper immigration documents, Durham detention officers contact ICE and the consulate of that person's home country. But that person may still be released on bail, according to the law.

Asion said Durham is less aggressive than some other cities and counties in going after illegal immigrants partly because of a 2003 City Council resolution stating, "Unless otherwise required as part of a city officer or employee's duties, ... no Durham city officer or employee ... shall inquire into the immigration status of any person or engage in activities designed to ascertain the immigration status of any person."

But Asion noted that immigrants who live in Durham may work in places such as Wake and Alamance counties.

Unreported crimes

For immigrants, not reporting crime goes beyond having a fear of police, said Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and speaks fluent Spanish. He said Hispanics often deal with issues among themselves to avoid language barriers that can lead to statements being taken out of context.

But unreported crimes present a problem for police, Lopez said.

"A lot of times, in order to be able to counter a criminal act, we have to look at the pattern," he said. "If we don't see a pattern because it's not reported, then not much can be done."

Clavijo said Durham police outreach efforts have helped, but police need to be more visible in Latino communities, and workshops with residents are needed to explain how officers operate.

Robbery arrests in February and March have helped bridge the gap between the police and the city's Latino community, Lopez said.

"It needs to be continuous," he said of police outreach efforts. "With the undocumented population, they're extremely transient, so the ones I have to deal with tomorrow aren't here yet, but they will be here."

stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or (919) 956-2426

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