The future of the 287g program is on the ballot in the primary for Mecklenburg County Sheriff as residents go to the polls today. For 12 years, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department has chosen to participate in the 287g program, a voluntary formal agreement with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to assist in implementing federal immigration enforcement at the local level by targeting, arresting and holding residents living in our community without a legal immigration status.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy believes these policies have caused great harm to our community by undermining public safety, depriving individuals due process, wasting county resources, and exposing tax payers to possible legal settlements. After 12 years and more than 15,000 deportations in Mecklenburg County because of 287g, it’s time to terminate the program and find solutions that promote community safety while protecting immigrant families.
Ernesto (name changed to protect the client’s identity.), 19, is one of thousands who have been negatively impacted by the 287g program. He came to the United States three years ago from Honduras.
The waves of gang violence sweeping the country has broken his family and his community. As a young teenager, he witnessed the gangs target and murder his father’s side of the family. When his father was ultimately kidnapped and killed, he faced hard choices: join the gang or die.
Instead, he fled; leaving behind his surviving family and the life he knew in hopes of finding safety elsewhere, hopefully in the United States.
Along the way, he met up with others trying to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. They stuck together assuming strength in numbers would offer more protection from the danger they would encounter throughout the month-long journey, using any means of transport available to them.
“When we were crossing in a boat, the boat sank, and two girls died,” he recalls.
Gangs they encountered along the way were just as dangerous as those he fled. A mother and daughter in their group were robbed and raped.
He arrived at the border in Brownsville, Texas, where he was detained after presenting himself to border officials.
“There was no sense of me running,” Ernesto says. “I would have been in more trouble.”
‘Try Not to Go Back’
Because he was a minor when he arrived in the U.S., Ernesto was able to go live with his step-grandfather in North Carolina while waiting for his immigration case to move through the backlogged immigration court system.
He came to Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for assistance with his case in the Charlotte Immigration Court. Immigration attorney Maureen Abell advised him to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a legal immigration status that protects children who are victims of abuse and violence in their home countries. With this status, Ernesto would be able to apply for and receive a green card, enabling him to remain in the U.S. and build a safe and stable life.
As he waited for his application to be processed, he tried to adapt. It was hard. He didn’t speak English or understand aspects of his new community, but it was still better than the consuming violence in Honduras.
“It’s not easy,” he says. “You try the best you can to not go back.”
He tried going to school, but only went for a year. There wasn’t much assistance or patience for a teenager who didn’t speak English and had a limited education.
He applied for a work permit and soon found work in construction, working on major projects around the Charlotte region.
His case was moving forward, and he had a strong case for receiving a green card that would offer him the path to U.S. citizenship.
That all changed last fall when Ernesto was riding in a car that was involved in a hit and run. He and the others in the vehicle were arrested after they fled the accident.
“They ran, and I ran too,” he says. “That’s how I got in trouble.”
He couldn’t afford to pay the $2,500 bond and remained in the Mecklenburg County Jail.
By the next day, he had a hold from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the 287g program, a voluntary agreement Mecklenburg County has with the federal government to arrest immigrants without legal status and house them in its jail before transferring them to ICE custody.
Because he had already been working with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Ernesto knew he had an application for legal status pending and he sought advice from his attorney. Abell advised him to stay in jail and seek additional legal assistance from a criminal lawyer.
“I knew ICE would come and get me if I got out,” he says.
Abell says Ernesto was lucky because he had access to legal assistance that helped him understand his options.
“He didn’t even know he needed a [criminal] lawyer,” she says. “I was able to make sure he knew who to call, and he got really good help.”
He remained in jail until an eyewitness account proved he was not the driver and cleared him of his charges. By that point, Ernesto had spent three months in jail, waiting.
He learned that his charges would be dismissed and that he would be released next day. Instead, ICE agents came to the jail and picked him up.
“They got me, and they wanted me to sign my voluntary departure,” Ernesto says. “I didn’t want to sign.”
A voluntary departure would have sent him back to Honduras and certain death. When he refused, ICE transferred him to Steward Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where the conditions were “very bad” and the guards taunted him.
“I didn’t feel safe,” he says. “The guards made fun of us because we were here ‘illegally.’”
He spent eight days in the same clothes. When he asked guards for something else to wear, they laughed at him and said, “just go buy some.”
When Abell found out Ernesto had been detained, she traveled to Stewart to advocate for his release, which only came after three months at a bail price three times higher than what he would have paid in Mecklenburg County.
Abell shakes her head at how quickly situation escalated after Ernesto’s arrest under the 287g program: “[The police] didn’t ask about his legal status beyond, ‘Were you born here?’ He had documentation on him at the time explaining that he had a green card pending. They should have known he had a case pending. They put a voluntary deportation order in front of him instead.”
Ernesto’s story is one of thousands behind the 287g program that the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department has participated in since 2006. More than 15,000 people in Mecklenburg County have been deported since the program’s inception. While the Sheriff’s Department highlights deportations involving people convicted of violent crimes, the majority have involved people charged with minor offenses, all while eroding trust in law enforcement from the immigrant community.
“Supporters of 287(g) would have us believe that the program only effects dangerous or violent criminals, but if we look at the all the cases referred to ICE, we know it’s broader than that,” Abell says.
Instead Abell says the program only works to accelerate deportations of people like Ernesto, not to improve overall public safety in Mecklenburg County.
For this reason, only 60 counties across the U.S. participate in the program. It’s also why Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy supports ending the program.
“ICE was notified when he was arrested and charged, despite the fact that he had an immigration case pending,” Abell says. “When his charges were ultimately dropped, he was still held so that ICE could get him, despite his legal situation.”
“No Life. No Future”
Even though the past six months have been a nightmare, Ernesto realizes how lucky he is in so many ways. He’s lucky to be alive, to have escaped gang violence, to have family in the U.S. that cares for him and to have advocates, like Abell, fighting for his continued safety.
He also knows he wouldn’t have gotten far trying to fight his legal battle alone.
“Without an attorney, I would still be [in Stewart],” he says.
And if he had remained in the detention facility without an attorney, there would have been little he could do to avoid deportation, even with a pending green card application.
At the thought of returning to Honduras, Ernesto stares at the floor and takes a deep breath: “There’s no life, no future. My brother was murdered on Saturday. They burned down the house. I don’t know where the family is. The same would happen to me.”
Ernesto is one of hundreds of people in need of legal help assisted each year by Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Immigrant Justice Program. Without Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, there are few resources and options available for free and low-cost legal help in the immigrant community.
As the largest non-profit legal service provider practicing before the Charlotte Immigration Court, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy continues to stand with our immigrant neighbors, advocating for inclusion and fairness under the law to ensure their safety, security and stability in our community.