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Sheriff's position: quiet

When Chatham County commissioners recently passed a resolution rejecting a federal immigration program known as 287(g), everyone had something to say.

William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration held a rally in Chatham on Tuesday night, calling on the commissioners to reconsider their vote.

On the other side, members of the N.C. Coalition for Justice for Immigrants, part of the N.C. Council of Churches, proclaimed that from a small county had come great wisdom.

About the only person who has been reticent about the program in Chatham is the guy who would be in charge of enforcing it: Sheriff Richard Webster.

In part, Webster has held his tongue because he's a politician -- and a smart one.

Webster determined very quickly that this immigration issue is a speeding train that runs over people on both sides of the track. Secondly, despite all the sound and fury, it's a moot issue for Chatham County. Based on the current federal criteria, Chatham couldn't participate, even if it wanted to.

For one thing, it simply does not have enough beds in its detention center.

The 287(g) program, which trains county officers to check the immigration status of every person arrested, is being used in seven of the biggest metropolitan areas of the state, including Wake and Durham counties. The smallest county in the program, Henderson, has 254 beds.

"Do you know how many beds we have here in Chatham?" Webster asked. "Fifty-one. And we keep full up in the 40s most of the time."

For years, he and his predecessors have been begging for more money to build a bigger jail and hire more officers, too.

But there have always been other priorities -- schools, for instance.

People -- and liberal politics -- have been bleeding into Chatham from Chapel Hill and Cary for years.

That helps explain the commissioners' resolution.

But Chatham has also had a longer history with Spanish-speaking immigrants than most other counties. Many were recruited as cheap labor by plants in Siler City. Some are legal; some are not. Over the years, they brought families and children. They are a reality.

If the commissioners want to pass a nonbinding resolution on immigration, that's fine, Webster said. He didn't ask for it, he didn't oppose it. He'd rather not discuss it at all.

"I don't deal in opinions," he said. "I've got a set of laws I've got to enforce."

Webster noted that in counties with a 287(g) program, all officers, including municipal police, feed the system. But it's always the sheriff, an elected official, who either gets the glory or takes the heat because it's the sheriff's deputies and jailers flagging illegal immigrants for deportation.

"People tend to look at immigration as black or white," Webster said. "But it's about 1 percent black and 1 percent white, with 98 shades of gray in between."

Great wisdom indeed.

(Listen to Ruth at 3 p.m. today on WPTF 680 AM's Bill LuMaye Show.)

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