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Civil rights group says Wake County sheriff is pushing ‘Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda’

Gerald M. Baker, left, and Donnie Harrison
Gerald M. Baker, left, and Donnie Harrison

In the final weeks before the election, a civil liberties group is accusing the Wake County sheriff of “tearing families apart and stoking racial tensions” by participating in a controversial immigration program.

The American Civil Liberties Union spent $100,000 for an advertisement airing on local radio stations that criticizes Republican Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who is running for a fifth term in office. Harrison faces Democratic challenger Gerald M. Baker.

“Donnie Harrison is pushing Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, tearing families apart and stoking racial tensions,” the narrator says in the ad. “How? Harrison has a special agreement with the Trump administration to detain immigrants using local resources.”

The Wake County Sheriff’s Office is one of six in North Carolina that participates in 287(g), which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain people living in the country illegally.

Baker, a Democrat who worked in the sheriff’s office for 28 years, said he is not in favor of the program. Harrison, meanwhile, has said the program helps his deputies identify suspects who give aliases.

“Trump has nothing to do with this,” Harrison said in response to the ad, explaining that he started taking part in the program in 2008, long before Trump became president.

Harrison said the Wake County commissioners gave the go-ahead for the program a decade ago.

“I had so many (people) come through our jail that had different names and we tried our best to do everything we could to get the identity of these people,” Harrison said, “and at the time we were not having any luck.”

Immigration has become a talking point in some North Carolina sheriff’s races, including in Durham County.

There, Sheriff Mike Andrews honors ICE detainers, requests from the agency to hold a person who’s already in custody up to 48 hours so federal agents can step in. Andrews lost his re-election bid this year to Clarence Birkhead, who pledged to stop honoring ICE detainers.

The ACLU paid for a similar advertisement that aired in May during the sheriff’s race in Mecklenburg County. That ad accused Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael of working with “Trump’s deportation force” through the 287(g) program.

Carmichael lost to a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detective who wanted to end the county’s participation in the program.

The ALCU of North Carolina does not endorse or oppose candidates in elections. Sarah Gillooly, director of political strategy and advocacy for the group, said the purpose of the ad for the Wake sheriff’s race is to educate voters on the candidates’ records on civil rights issues.

“We know the 287(g) program across North Carolina has targeted people based on their skin color and contributed to civil rights abuses,” Gillooly said.

“The voters were clear and decisive about the demand to end the 287(g) program and end the deportation pipeline in Mecklenburg,” she continued. “We believe that many voters in Wake County care deeply about their immigrant neighbors and co-workers and friends, as well.”

Bryan Cox, ICE spokesperson for the southern region, said the program doesn’t grant local law enforcement officials any additional arrest authority.

“Deputies in 287 (g) jurisdictions cannot make any arrest they could not make without the program and it does not give law enforcement the authority to arrest someone based upon immigration status,” Cox wrote in an email.

“All 287g program actions take place only after a person has been arrested, transported and booked into a local jail on a criminal charge irrespective of anything to do with immigration. The program is essentially a screening tool that allows trained deputies operating under ICE supervision to conduct interviews and do records checks of all foreign-born persons already in the local jail.”

How it works

Between 12 and 14 detention officers at the Wake County jail can interview, fingerprint, photograph and record sworn statements from inmates suspected of living in the country illegally.

Once a suspect is jailed after being charged with a criminal offense, the officers can crosscheck his or her fingerprints in the ICE national database. If information shows the person is not here legally, the federal agency is notified.

ICE then decides whether it will request a detainer on the suspect.

The officers also have the authority to serve arrest warrants for immigration violations, according to Wake’s contract, which is scheduled to end in June 2019. The sheriff can choose whether to renew the contract.

ICE trains the detention officers to perform certain duties and pays for the computers and installation of the computers used by the officers. But the officers are paid by the sheriff’s office.

The Wake sheriff’s office reported that nearly 11,000 people were processed through 287(g) between 2013 and 2017. Of that number, 1,483 were deported.

Wake County residents pay roughly $1.9 million each year in costs associated with deporting undocumented immigrants, according to Felicia Arriaga, an assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University.

In addition to personnel and detention, there are potential costs related to foster care for children of immigrants who have been arrested, according to Arriaga.

Jail deaths

The advertisement also talks about the inmates who have died in the Wake County jail.

“Take the local jail system: Several people have died during Harrison’s watch, often after being neglected by Harrison’s deputies,” the narrator says.

There were 22 deaths reported in the Wake County jail or at a hospital following an episode — suicide, overdose, failing health or assault — at the jail between 2005 and September 2018, according to a News & Observer analysis.

In one case, a detention officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the beating death of an inmate in 2013.

Harrison described the jail deaths as “a headache.”

“It’s everybody’s headache,” he said.

The ad mentions Baker’s plan to create a citizens review panel if he is elected. And Baker has also pledged “to stop Trump’s divisive anti-immigrant agenda,” the ad says.

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__
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