Alex Matehuala, a 13-year-old seventh-grader who wants to become a boxer and artist, stepped up to a microphone Wednesday night and explained to Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison why he should not renew a program that allows deputies to determine a person’s immigration status after they are arrested for a crime.
Alex, dressed in a button-down shirt and striped necktie, told the sheriff that young people his age worry daily about their parents not being at home when they return from school because they have been picked up by federal immigration officers who deport them.
“At school we are told about universal human rights: education, food, shelter, safety, the right to freedom and to be able to migrate,” he said. “Mr. Harrison, does that mean my teachers have been lying to me, or is it the government favors racist laws and programs? Will you continue to renew a racist program that puts families at risk of being separated?”
Sixteen-year-old Esperanza Espinosa’s story was even more dispiriting.
“My father was deported,” Esperanza, a Wake Early College student and one of five children, told Harrison. “Can you imagine how a 12-, 6- and 4-year-old feel, knowing they will never see their father again? I have a 3-year-old brother. We told him our father was working faraway.”
Alex and Esperanza were among the nearly 100 children and adults who gathered at the Good Shepherd Church in downtown Raleigh for a community forum with Harrison. The largely Central American group wanted to talk with the sheriff about Wake County’s 287(g) program that allows the federal government to delegate immigration enforcement powers to local law agencies if an undocumented immigrant is arrested. The sheriff’s office entered into the partnership with ICE in 2007, and it is up for renewal in June, along with programs in Henderson, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Gaston counties.
The group also talked to Harrison about a House bill, the “Highway Safety/Citizens Protection Act,” that offers a restricted driver’s permit for undocumented immigrants. They asked the sheriff if he would be willing to recognize an alternate form of identification, the “FaithAction ID,” that’s sponsored by Faith House International in Greensboro, which advocates on behalf of immigrants. Faith House International created the ID in 2013 in partnership with the Greensboro Police Department as an alternative to government issued forms of identification.
Harrison expressed empathy for the group’s concerns, but said he intends to continue the 287(g) program. Harrison also said his office would not recognize a form of identification not issued by state or federal authorities. He said 287(g) and government-sanctioned forms of identification enable his office to positively identify individuals in custody at the Wake County jail.
“The concern I have is with validity. How do I know it’s ‘John Doe?’” he asked the group. “That’s my problem with the ID. Prior to 287(g), people left the jail and we knew they weren’t who they said they were. What if I accept a form of identification from a rapist and let that person go? That comes back to me.”
The forum took place one day after state senators a few blocks away voted in favor of a bill that may make the forum moot. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 868, the “Local Government Immigration Compliance Act,” which would withhold state funds for public school construction and road maintenance in cities and towns that fail to comply with state laws related to immigration. The bill, now in the Senate judiciary committee, would forbid cities and towns from recognizing any form of identification not issued by the state or federal government, including the FaithAction ID.
“Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Asheboro and a couple of other cities all recognize the FaithAction ID,” said William P. Saenz, a spokesman with El Pueblo, a statewide Latino advocacy group based in Raleigh. “Durham has its own form of the ID through El Centro Hispano, but it’s essentially the same thing.”
The bill would also forbid North Carolina municipalities from being “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary cities refers to those that have opted to not prosecute people solely for entering the country illegally, Saenz said.
Saenz pointed out that the Senate bill comes on the heels of one signed into law late last year, the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act,” that forbids municipalities from recognizing ID cards issued by the Mexican consulate.
“It took away the use of consular IDs,” he said. “What we saw yesterday with Senate Bill 868 was basically a doubling down.”
Many of the forum participants wore turquoise-blue shirts that read “Fighting for our dignity” on the front and “Si a Las Licencias, No A Las Restricciones” – Yes to licenses, No to restrictions – on the back.
Harrison remained unconvinced.
“Why do you need an ID to talk to me?” he asked. “I don’t care if you’re documented or not, my job is to keep you safe, whether you believe it or not.”