Alamance County could see the return of an immigration program that allows the sheriff's office to work with federal agents to detain people living in the United States illegally.
To protest the potential return of the 287 (g) program and to mock comments from Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson referring to Mexicans as "taco-eaters," immigration activists and residents delivered a tray of tacos to the county's detention center in Graham on Wednesday evening.
The 287 (g) program allows state and local law enforcement agencies to partner with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain and begin the removal process of people living in the country illegally.
Alamance County's previous involvement with the 287 (g) program between 2007 and 2012 brought a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice against Johnson for discriminatory practices against Latinos.
The lawsuit stemmed from the a two-year investigation by the Department of Justice that alleged the sheriff’s office set up traffic checkpoints near neighborhoods with predominantly Latino residents. The investigation alleged Alamance deputies racially profiled immigrant Latinos, who deputies were four to 10 times more likely to stop than non-Latino drivers.
The investigation also accused the sheriff and his office of fostering a culture of bias toward Latinos, using racial epithets like, "Go out there and catch me some Mexicans" and "Go out there and get me some of those taco-eaters."
Judge Thomas Schroeder dismissed the case in 2015, citing the U.S. government failed to prove the sheriff and his agency's practices discriminated against Latinos . The Department of Justice appealed the judge’s decision but then dropped the suit after reaching a settlement with the sheriff in 2016.
ICE ended the 287 (g) partnership with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office the same day the U.S. government reported the findings of its investigation. In his fourth four-year term as sheriff, Johnson has applied to rejoin the program.
ICE has not yet approved the sheriff’s application, said spokesman Bryan Cox.
It’s unclear if the government’s investigation and the legal proceedings that followed will have any weight in ICE’s review of the application.
“Per ICE policy, the agency does not discuss pending 287g applications,” Cox said in a email. “Should any new 287g program be approved, the agency would publicly confirm at that time."
It's not up to the sheriff to enter into the agreement with ICE. The Alamance County Commissioners would need to approve the partnership.
Neither Johnson nor Alamance County attorney Clyde Albright could be reached Wednesday for comment.
Immigration activists and Alamance County residents who protested Wednesday evening near the grounds of the Alamance County Detention Center, the sherriff's office and the superior court urged commissioners not to partner with ICE.
“This protest is a way of communicating to the commissioners that we don’t want this program," said Laura Garduño García, an activist with Siembra NC, an immigration advocacy group based in Greensboro.
Siembra NC is gathering signatures for a petition against 287 (g) returning to the county. Garduño García said she hopes to share the petition with the county commissioners whenever they vote on the program. The vote can happen at any time and without notice, she said.
Six North Carolina sheriff’s offices participate in the 287 (g) program, including Wake, Mecklenburg, Nash, Henderson, Gaston and Cabarrus. If ICE accepts the county’s application, it will join that list.
Alamance County’s population has seen a shift in the last three decades. Census data show that in 1990, there were less than 800 Latinos in Alamance — less than 1 percent of the population — and whites made up 80 percent of the population. Now, Latinos make up about 12 percent of the population in the county, while whites make up 64 percent, according to Census data.
With the backdrop of a mariachi band playing ballads, protestors at first gathered under the shade of trees outside the superior court.
The crowd eventually made its way to the Alamance County Detention Center to deliver the tacos to Johnson.
"Si tacos quiere, tacos le damos," immigrant activist Emma Vazquez shouted to the crowd.
"If he wants tacos, we'll give him tacos."
Activists entered the Alamance County Detention Center to deliver the tacos to Johnson, but deputies at the prison did not accept the tacos on his behalf.
Not all the protesters were so brazen.
Rosa Ramirez, who has lived in Alamance County for the last 18 years, stayed at margins of the crowd and observed quietly, with her arms crossed.
Ramirez, a Mexican mother of two, recalled friends who were arrested by the sheriff's office for driving without a license and later deported when Alamance County had the partnership with ICE.
"We're scared," Ramirez said. "We won't feel safe outside doing the things we normally do, like grocery shopping. "There's a fear of being stopped."
Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__