An activist chants during a protest at the U.S.-Mexico border during a Dream Act protest in Tijuana, Mexico in 2014. Sandy Huffaker/Reuters

In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, a local law enforcement race became a referendum on immigration.

Updated: May 09, 2018 This article has been updated to reflect the results of Tuesday’s election.

During the week of February 9, 2017, fear bled through the Latino community in East Charlotte, North Carolina, after social media reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was conducting roundup-style immigration raids, and had taken dozens of undocumented immigrants into custody. At the time, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox disputed the reports, telling the Charlotte Observer that they had likely surfaced because “everyone's attention is focused on this issue recently.”

It turned out that Charlotte’s Latino community had good reason to focus on immigration raids that week. The following Monday, ICE released a fact sheet that said immigration agents had arrested 84 people in North Carolina as a part of nationwide targeted enforcement operations. This is not necessarily new in North Carolina: Since 2015, deportations in the state have been increasing steadily. A big reason for this is the 287(g) program, which gives local police officers immigration enforcement powers in jails, out in the field, or both. Six North Carolina counties are currently using 287(g), including Mecklenburg County, which contains Charlotte.

Sheriff Irwin Carmichael re-signed the county’s agreement in 2016. Now, he’s been ousted from office, in an election Tuesday night that became a referendum on immigration policy. Carmichael will be replaced by Garry McFadden, who won with 52 percent of the vote on a platform to withdraw from 287(g).

“287(g) is going to be history in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. It’s going to be an event,” McFadden said in his victory speech on Tuesday night. He also promised to end two of Carmichael’s other controversial programs—solitary confinement, and strictly digital visitation. “We’re going to talk about…solitary confinement. After my assessment if I see solitary confinement that is going to be gone. And mothers are going to get to visit their loved ones.”

Over the past few years, several other counties have used the sheriff's election as a lever for local immigration change. In 2014, Karl Bickel challenged Frederick County, Maryland Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, on a platform of auditing the 287(g) program. Jenkins, known for supporting the program, won the 2014 election, but Bickel will challenge him again this year in the upcoming Frederick County sheriff race on a similar platform. In November 2016, Ed Gonzalez was elected sheriff of Harris County, Texas, on a platform that included opting out of the 287(g) program, and a little over a year later, he did. And just last year, Sally Hernandez was elected the sheriff of Travis County, Texas—where Austin sits—on a platform of ending voluntary compliance with ICE. Since her election, Texas governor Greg Abbott has fought back against Austin’s sanctuary policies with legal challenges and anti-immigrant legislation.

In Charlotte, the sheriff’s race has generated significant outside interest as well: According to the Charlotte Observer, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has spent $175,000 on the race, targeting Sheriff Carmichael as working with “Trump’s deportation force”.

ACLU Mecklenburg County sheriff candidates scorecard.

“I think part of the wake-up call around local activism has been the realization that a lot of policy-making that is important to people's day to day lives happens at the local level,” said Daniel Stageman, Director of Research Operations at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You have this perfect storm of good local organizing and motivated voters who are focused on a single issue. Two years ago, nobody knew what 287(g) was.”

Though many condemn the program for being costly and ineffective, 287(g) has proliferated under Trump: Today, ICE has agreements with 76 law enforcement agencies across 20 states. (That’s more than double the number of agreements there were in 2016, and 16 more than there were when CityLab’s Tanvi Misra reported on the program last August.)  

For the opponents of 287(g) in Charlotte, electing a new sheriff seemed like the only way to rid the county of the program: While Carmichael embraced it, both of his challengers—McFadden and Antoine Ensley—vowed to end it. And although the election was technically the Democratic primary, there was no Republican challenger, so McFadden has become the new sheriff. In all, only 20 percent of the vote went to Carmichael, suggesting widespread opposition to his policies. The other 28 percent went to Ensley.

“It's important for the immigrant communities in Mecklenburg County, who ends up being sheriff,” Stageman said. “It may not be quite as important as who's in the White House, but it's not unimportant.”

A week after the terror in East Charlotte, an immigrants’ rights organization called Comunidad Colectiva arranged a Charlotte-area “Day Without Immigrants” as a part of the national movement. Some 8,000 Charlotte immigrants and their supporters marched uptown in peaceful protest, flooding the streets and halting vehicular traffic. An estimated 250 Latino businesses also closed that day in solidarity. Community organizers asked city leaders to do more for the immigrant community.  

Charlotte’s Day Without Immigrants. (Hola Noticias, courtesy of Comunidad Colectiva)

To Comunidad Colectiva organizer Stefania Arteaga, these events were a turning point for the Charlotte community. When an 18-year-old beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Gus Zamudio, was picked up by ICE shortly after the march, the community mobilized. “There were a lot of things that brought 287(g) into the public light,” Artega said. “This isn’t the first time [287(g)] has been on the news, but it was different because we really took advantage of the fact that people were mobilized, and we were coming up on an election.” (Zamudio, who was arrested for stealing from Harris Teeter, has since been deported.)

Suddenly, Charlotte voters were paying attention to 287(g), and at the same time, the program became pivotal in the sheriff’s race. As the program received more attention in Mecklenburg County, the race began to shine a spotlight on exactly how it works. Sheriff Carmichael told The Intercept that there is “misinformation” being spread about the program. And in March, he appeared on Fox and Friends to explain: “I always tell everyone, you will never ever encounter this program unless you’re arrested and charged with a crime and brought to our jail.”

(Fox and Friends)

Both McFadden and Ensley, who are former members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, made eliminating the program central to their campaigns. Each of them spoke out against the program, not only because it hurts immigrant families, but also because they believe it is detrimental to local law enforcement. "It damages the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” McFadden told the Charlotte Observer.

Mecklenburg County only employs the jail version of the 287(g) program, meaning that immigrants cannot be processed through the federal database without first being arrested. But for Latinos in Charlotte, arrest can feel unavoidable. Immigrants are frequently arrested and taken to jail for offenses that are part and parcel of being undocumented, such as driving without a license or other traffic violations. (Undocumented immigrants in North Carolina cannot get driver's licenses.) Sheriff Carmichael has not responded to CityLab’s request for comment.

There are other reasons Charlotteans were fighting to get Sheriff Carmichael out of office, too: He allowed solitary confinement for teenagers in county jails, and contracted with a for-profit company called GTL, allowing inmates solely online visitation services, a practice many have criticized.

“He’s fear mongering,” Arteaga said. “There’s no other way to put it.”

McFadden, who is black, also had the support of Charlotte’s African American community, who was affected by Carmichael’s harsh policing policies. “If you look at who is in our jails, its mostly black people, and many of them are working class. They are stuck jail because they cannot pay their bail,” said Oliver Merino, an organizer for Comunidad Colectiva.

McFadden said he hopes to bridge these gaps. “I want to change the city to bring unity. I want to change the city to bring inclusiveness, and we’re going to have to talk about race,” McFadden said in his acceptance speech. “Someone said, ‘is that the job of the sheriff?’ Well that’s the job of this sheriff.”

Exit polls are not yet available, but this year’s primary seemed to be drawing more interest than previous ones. Overall, some 20,300 people voted early in the county, up from 13,600 four years ago in a similar primary (where no president or governor’s seat was at stake).

Merino says he talked to many voters on Tuesday who cited 287(g) as their reason for voting against Carmichael.

“I don’t think all the 30,000 [registered Latino voters] came out, but the people who came out knew what the issue was in the election, and the issue was 287(g),” Merino said.

He said his campaign used messaging like “vote for folks who can’t,” or  “for the safety of our community,” to improve historically lower voter turnout amongst Latinos.

In Carmichael’s absence, the number of deportations in the county could shrink considerably. But according to Mai Nguyen, an associate professor of Housing and Community Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the end of 287(g) would not necessarily mean the end of ICE’s collaboration with local law enforcement. Local law enforcement agents can and do collaborate with ICE in a number of informal ways.

“They’ve always had the power to [communicate with ICE], said Nguyen. “But getting rid of 287(g) would take the authority away from local law enforcement to actually process and deport undocumented immigrants,” she said. “The ability to deport individuals without due process or a lawyer, that all gets take away without 287(g).”

For Merino, the priority moving forward is to make sure McFadden publicly agrees not to to cooperate with ICE.

“We have his commitment to ending the program, but we have to make sure he doesn’t honor the ICE holds in Mecklenburg county…which [if honored] are practically the same as 287(g),” Merino said. “That way if something does come up, he is held accountable.”

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