At least a dozen undocumented immigrants were arrested by federal officials on Tuesday and Wednesday in what appears to be a coordinated enforcement effort across Charlotte and North Carolina, advocates said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers — many of them undercover — detained mostly Latino men at over 10 traffic stops around the city early in the morning, said Stefania Arteaga of Comunidad Colectiva, an immigrant rights group in Charlotte.
The checkpoint arrests came amid reports of widespread ICE activity across North Carolina, including a raid on an arms manufacturing plant in Sanford on Tuesday that resulted in about 30 arrests and similar traffic stops in Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro.
Bryan Cox, a spokesman for the agency, disputed notions that Wednesday’s activity was out of the ordinary.
“We have Charlotte-based ICE officers who conduct immigration enforcement every day,” Cox told the Observer. “The fact that ICE makes arrests in the Charlotte area is not a unique occurrence.”
He said he could not immediately confirm the number of arrests by ICE officers on Wednesday or provide the average number of daily arrests in Charlotte. Nearly 15,200 people were arrested by ICE’s Atlanta office, which oversees Georgia and the Carolinas, in the most recent fiscal year.
But Jose Hernandez Paris, the executive director of the Latin American Coalition, said that both the traffic stops as well as the number of people detained in Charlotte — as high as 60 as of Wednesday evening — was unusual for such a short period of time.
“It’s very obvious that they’re not being targeted,” he said. “They’re being stopped randomly.”
In videos posted to Facebook by Comunidad Colectiva, Arteaga said that undercover officers in bulletproof vests were stopping people at checkpoints near the intersection of Sharon Amity Road and Central Avenue, and on Old Statesville Road in north Charlotte, among other locations.
“It seems like they’re pretending to be CMPD and using traffic stops, when in reality they’re faking that to try and get people to disclose their immigration information,” Arteaga told the Observer.
In one video, Arteaga filmed two officers — wearing camouflage clothing labeled “POLICE” — in what she said is an a unmarked Ford Explorer behind the QuikTrip gas station in Commonwealth Park.
“Hey, what’s going on, is somebody arrested?” Arteaga asks in the video. “He’s in handcuffs.”
“He’s in handcuffs for our safety,” said one of the officers, who later in the video declined to provide Arteaga with any information.
Arteaga added that enforcement cars were labeled “police gang unit,” while others were unmarked and had Texas and Georgia license plates. In one instance, three men were picked up at a house, she said.
While gang intelligence units often work within local police departments, Lt. Brad Koch, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police spokesman, said CMPD did not assist ICE with any operations Tuesday or Wednesday.
Vespey Garcia, a phlebotomist in Charlotte, said that her uncle, Luis Rivas, was arrested in Durham while driving to work at a construction site with his brother, Gilberto.
They had barely pulled out of the driveway in their house near Chapel Hill, Garcia said, when their car was stopped by officials standing near three unmarked vehicles on the side of the road.
Asked to show IDs, Gilberto provided his work permit and was told he could go. But when Rivas was only able to offer up his Salvadoran passport, she said, the officers then told him to get out of the vehicle and detained him.
“At that moment they didn’t tell him his rights,” she said. “They put him in handcuffs and didn’t even tell him what he was being arrested for.”
Several jurisdictions across North Carolina, including Mecklenburg County, recently ended their participation in the controversial 287(g) program, which allows local police to enforce federal immigration law. ICE threatened in May that the end of the program locally could lead to a greater enforcement footprint in Charlotte.
Cox, the ICE spokesman, said that enforcement efforts overwhelmingly target individuals with some sort of criminal record, rather than those who overstayed a visa or entered the country illegally — a misdemeanor offense.
Over 90 percent of those arrested in the most recent fiscal year by ICE’s Atlanta office had a prior conviction or pending criminal charges.
“When ICE goes out into the community to make arrests, they have in hand a targeted list and they are going to specific places looking for specific persons who were pre-identified,” Cox said.
But Arteaga, of Comunidad Colectiva, said that the traffic stops did not seem to be targeting any particular individuals.
“It didn’t look like they were looking for somebody,” she said. “They were just looking for anyone who’s brown.”
A Mexican woman named Maria said that her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law were stopped on Tuesday morning on Abermarle Road in east Charlotte while heading to a construction site in Mint Hill.
None of them have any kind of criminal record, she said, declining to give her last name for fear of retaliation. All three men are being held at Stewart Detention Facility in Georgia.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat, issued a statement condemning the arrests, calling them “an issue of deep concern” and saying they “appear to be related to a worksite action.”
ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell told The (Raleigh) News & Observer that the arrests in Sanford were part of an “ongoing investigation” into an arms factory there, but that other ICE activity in North Carolina was unrelated.
Staff writers Mark Price and Jane Wester contributed.