After 200 immigrants living here illegally were arrested in North Carolina this week, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has come under public fire with many questioning the sudden urgency.
But ICE sought Friday to dispel the notion that they are arresting more people. The agency said recent decisions by several North Carolina sheriffs to sever agreements with ICE have forced their hand.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said the 200 arrests were on par with the average of 15,000 people they arrest per year, but the arrests have just become more visible, as opposed to picking someone up at a local jail out of the public eye.
“When local policies change, it changes the way we do our arrests. Our officers have to go out and take a person into custody in the street, at a workplace, at their home,” he said. “Usually we would go to the local jail. When they refuse to allow us to do so, we have no choice.”
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday that it would no longer detain people suspected of being undocumented immigrants in the Forsyth County Jail, severing their previous contract with ICE.
Sheriff’s offices in Mecklenberg, Wake and Durham counties have also recently changed their policies on notifying ICE and detaining immigrants living here illegally. Area immigrant advocacy groups have praised the sheriff’s actions but noted the ICE arrests are causing hardships for many families.
At a news conference Wednesday, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said that sheriff’s deputies will continue to enforce the law and arrest people who are charged with criminal offenses — regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens or undocumented immigrants “because I have been sworn to uphold the law.”
But he said they would not act as an extension of ICE.
Andrew Willis Garcés — a spokesman for a Greensboro-based organization, American Friend Service Committee / Siembra NC — applauded the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office for its stand.
“We have a lot of gratitude for (the sheriff’s office). It’s really going to change a lot of lives,” he said. “It feels like these arrests are ICE being ICE, promoting their family-separation agenda, trying to spread fear, chaos and confusion.”
While ICE said they do not have a breakdown of the arrests in each city, the Greensboro organization contends that at least 31 of those arrests have been in the Triad area.
In the past four days, nine of those arrests were made in Winston-Salem, five were in Greensboro and eight each were in Asheboro and Randleman, according to the organization.
All of the detainees were from Mexico or Guatemala and pulled over by officers in unmarked cars, he said.
Garces said they determined the number of local arrests through families that they have been able to identify, some through their 24-hour ICE detention hotline.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Garcés said. “Most of them are parents of young children, who are U.S. citizens and their moms are U.S. citizens. They are suddenly without a dad and without a primary breadwinner, trying to figure out what to do.”
The organization, which held a protest Thursday, has a GoFundMe page to help the families affected and will match donations up to $100.
But Cox said they’re just doing their job. ICE held a press conference in Charlotte Friday to explain why things appear to be changing.
“When law enforcement agencies release serious criminal offenders onto the streets it undermines ICE’s ability to protect public safety and carry out its mission,” Cox said.
“Of those arrested this week, 50 are convicted criminals, 40 have pending criminal charges and another 50 are fugitives who have already gone before the court and an immigration judge has already ordered them removed.”
But while there may be more arrests in the community, Cox said they are not arresting more people overall.
He said they would prefer to work with the sheriff’s offices in the state and are open to renewing relationships with those who have changed their policies, as making public arrests puts ICE officers and the general public at a greater safety risk.
“It’s safer at a local jail where they’ve been screened for weapons and officers don’t have to knock on doors or pull vehicles over with no idea if there’s weapons,” Cox said. “We don’t want to do immigration enforcement this way.”