In the coming days, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper will be faced with the decision to either approve or veto House Bill 370. If this anti-immigrant legislation is signed into law, North Carolina sheriffs will be required to take on federal immigration enforcement tasks for ICE and detain immigrants beyond the legally allowable period. This will result in more racial profiling and thousands of additional deportations from our community – thousands of individuals will be ripped from their families; thousands of devoted, hard working employees will be eliminated from the workforce; and thousands of dreams for a better life will be destroyed.
But when a person is deported, they don’t disappear – they just enter into a different and dangerous reality. Last week, a small group of NC-based immigrant rights activists traveled more than 1,000 miles in less than 48 hours to better understand that reality.
When ICE picks up someone in North Carolina, there’s a high likelihood that they will wind up at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Stewart is a private, for-profit facility with 2,000 beds that are never left empty. It is the fourth largest immigrant detention facility in the country, and the primary destination for all undocumented men detained in the Southeast. If you’re unlucky enough to end up at Stewart, there’s a 98 percent chance you will ultimately be deported, a higher rate than any other ICE facility in the country.
During our time there, we sat in courtrooms where immigrant detainees without any right to legal representation stood alone in front of a judge as he decided their fate (only six percent of detainees at Stewart are able to obtain legal representation). Some of the detainees were seen by the judge via one-way, remote video connection due to a mumps outbreak preventing sick detainees from entering the courtroom. We watched those same judges roll their eyes in annoyance when connections to over-the-phone interpreters didn’t work.
We met with detainees, although our interactions were limited to 45 minute visits by phone in a small partitioned cubby with a thick plexiglass window between us. One of the stories we heard was that of a young man from Honduras who came seeking protection and for whom deportation could mean death. Seeking asylum is legal under U.S. and international law, but applicants must remain imprisoned until their case is heard, waiting for immigration judges to make their way through a backlog of over 800,000 cases.
And of course, we weren’t the only visitors there. Others had traveled even further distances, desperate to see their loved ones for what might be the last time. They, too, were limited to a mere 45 minutes over a crackling phone line. One elderly mother had driven through the night all the way from New York with carefully wrapped, home-cooked delicacies for her son in hopes of offering him love and comfort the best way she knew how. The guards refused her offerings, indicating that they would gladly consume her dolmas and bread, but that detainees could receive nothing.
We sat with parents, siblings, and children as they wept for loved ones, witnessing first-hand our government’s callous disregard for the dignity and humanity of people who are desperately seeking safety, opportunity, freedom, and happiness.
Increased collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE decreases community safety because it disincentivizes immigrant communities from reporting crimes or seeking support. This is why many of our democratically elected sheriffs campaigned on a promise to limit nonessential cooperation with ICE: collaboration is unsafe and it’s anti-immigrant, and the majority of North Carolinians agree.
HB 370 is in opposition to that majority, and it paves the way for more devastation. It won’t make our communities safer, it won’t improve our economy, and it certainly won’t make America great. To expand the deportation machine is to abandon our own humanity and our moral obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves.