Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said his department participates in the federal government’s 287(g) deportation program because it helps him identify undocumented immigrants who might be wanted for serious crimes.
Maybe it does, but by taking up the federal invitation to more closely scrutinize individuals, Harrison lost sight of what he was doing to the wider population of undocumented Hispanic immigrants and their families in Wake County. Many of them were being arrested on misdemeanor charges and traffic violations and referred to federal authorities for possible deportation.
Between 2013 and 2017, the Wake sheriff’s office processed nearly 11,000 people through 287(g), a federal program that enables specially trained deputies to act as immigration officers and detain people suspected of being in the country illegally. Of those processed, 1,483 were deported. Those deportations took parents from their children and workers from their employers. It also inhibited law enforcement by making undocumented immigrants fearful of reporting crimes.
Those effects may explain why Harrison — first elected in 2002 — won’t be Wake’s sheriff in 2019. Harrison, a Republican heavily favored to win re-election, was upset by Democrat Gerald Baker, a recently retired sheriff’s department employee who promised to end Wake’s participation in the 287(g) program.
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“I don’t support that program. You see families being torn apart over minor traffic stuff,” Baker said in an interview with the N&O’s editorial board before the election. “Our job is to serve and protect. It’s not our job to determine who belongs here.”
Baker’s candidacy was helped by a $100,000 American Civil Liberties Union campaign of radio, print and online ads critical of Harrison’s participation in the program.
“We decided to invest in the campaign because there was so much on the line for civil rights and civil liberties,” said Mike Meno, an ACLU of North Carolina spokesman. “When voters see that people’s rights are on the ballot, they can and will hold public officials accountable.”
Harrison’s defeat is part of a broader story in North Carolina. Sheriffs are rejecting a role in immigration enforcement. In Mecklenburg County voters turned out a sheriff who participated in 287(g) in favor of one who promised to cut ties to the program. With the state’s two largest counties leaving the 287(g) program, only four remain involved: Henderson, Gaston, Cabarrus and Nash.
While President Trump pushes a crackdown on undocumented immigrants as a tough-on-crime policy, many in law enforcement see it for what it is: a tough-on-brown-people policy. That may explain why many African-American candidates for sheriff, a group sensitive to how aggressive law enforcement can slide into racial abuse, oppose hardline immigration enforcement. The News & Observer’s Josh Shaffer reported that Tuesday’s election saw black sheriffs elected in all seven of the state’s largest counties.
Trump will continue his drumbeat about the dangers of illegal immigrants, but the fear mongering is wearing thin. With unemployment so low, the national problem is a lack of workers, not too many immigrants. And studies show that undocumented immigrants actually have lower rates of crime than the general U.S. population. Those who fight crime — such as the newly elected sheriffs of the state’s seven largest counties — know that crimes are better prevented and solved when undocumented immigrants feel comfortable cooperating with law enforcement.