Chatham County: Another Small Victory in the Immigration Battle

After the immigration reform bill failed in 2007, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency began actively promoting a largely dormant program that trains local law enforcement to perform the duties of federal immigration officers. As local communities increasingly become the front lines of the immigration war, one North Carolina county took on ICE along with local anti-immigrant groups—and won the battle.

April 13, 2009

On a Monday evening in February 50 or so protesters stood outside the courthouse in Pittsboro, North Carolina, a small town just south of Chapel Hill. It wasn’t a typical protest – there was no chanting or speeches – the protesters spoke quietly among themselves. Two middle-aged women compared quiche recipes as they held up a large banner that read: “Migration is a Human Right.” Other signs were similarly non-combative: “We Love Chatham County,” “Our Commissioners are Brave.” A few cars honked their horns supportively as they drove by. There didn’t seem to be anything much to protest, at least not here, in Pittsboro.


In the 1990s, the U.S. Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency – then, the INS – started a program called 287(g), which trains local law enforcement to perform the duties of federal immigration officers. Between 2006 and 2008, the program received $60 million in federal funding and trained over 950 officers in over 67 agencies across the country (42 additional agencies are on the waiting list).

Poetic justice? An immigrant rights' advocate stands beneath the statue of a Confederate soldier adorning the entrance to the Chatham County courthouse. (By Ronald García-Fogarty)

In the Pittsboro courthouse, just a few weeks before the protest, Chatham County commissioners passed a resolution rejecting 287(g). George Lucier, the commissioners’ chairman, feared that the program would impair the relationship between local police and immigrant communities.

Lucier’s concerns were well founded. A Government Accountability Office report released last month, suggests that 15% of participating agencies have used their authority under 287(g) to detain undocumented immigrants for minor offences and process them for deportation. In 2008, roughly 3,000 migrants were placed in removal proceedings in North Carolina; 25% of them were charged with DWI, and 33% were charged with other driving-related offences.

The intent of the program, as stated on the ICE website, is to help federal authorities “pursue investigations relating to violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, sexual-related offenses, narcotics smuggling and money laundering.”

Instead, local police are treating broken taillights and open containers of alcohol as homeland security risks and undocumented immigrants are caught in a perpetual cat-and-mouse chase. Statistics compiled by Justice Strategies, a research and advocacy group, show that race, not crime, has propelled the program’s popularity; 87% of participating agencies are based in areas where the rate of Latino population growth is higher than the national average. Only 40% of these localities have crime rates that are above the national average.

Participation in the program is costly. Although training is federally subsidized, hidden costs fall upon cash-strapped county and local governments. Chatham County, for example, would have to build a new, $30-million jail to accommodate the program. The resolution explaining the commission's decision reasoned, “Chatham Middle School is 40% over capacity. We could not afford the new middle school if we had to build a new jail in these difficult financial times."

Many county residents welcomed the resolution; Chatham went decisively to Barack Obama during the 2008 election, and perhaps the resolution felt appropriate for the times, or just inconsequential in the scope of change to come. But outside county lines the resolution received sharp resistance; anti-immigration groups, like ALIPAC in Raleigh and North Carolina Listen in Cary, staged an online smear campaign. They demanded a second public hearing on 287(g), claiming that the original hearings were too opaque. Eventually, Chatham’s commissioners agreed.


One young protester surveyed the lawn outside the courthouse for unfamiliar faces. (“Everyone knows everyone in Chatham County,” I had been told, on more than one occasion.) There was no sign of anti-immigration groups staking the lawn.

The Chatham County courthouse. As ICE tries to extend 287(g), an ever-growing number of local communities have come out against the program. (By Ronald García-Fogarty)

During the hearing, nearly 40 people waited patiently for their turn to speak. After all the feverish mailings and blog posts, only four objectors to the resolution made it to the courthouse – a representative from North Carolina Listen, the only suit-and-tie in the crowd, a middle-aged man from the Chatham County Republicans, and two residents from Pittsboro, who seemed more concerned with immigration reform, than with 287(g) specifically.

The rest voiced their support for the resolution against the ICE program. A social worker spoke of an 18-year-old, who was was pulled over for speeding near Raleigh, and deported quickly thereafter; authorities never contacted his family and for months his grandmother thought he had disappeared. Farmers spoke of how much they valued their Latino co-workers. A young woman at a local college, whose parents came from Mexico, said she was studying to join the FBI. Others spoke of 287(g) as a "states' rights" issue.

Towards the end of the meeting, the lack of disagreement became a punch line of sorts. "I don't ever want to hear the word ‘illegal’ applied to a human being again in my life," a man with a thick, handlebar mustache, sneered as he read from his notes. He looked up at the crowd, and smiled, "But I guess I don't need to tell any of you that."

The discussion might be over in Chatham County, but on the national stage, the 287(g) debate is ongoing, in fact the Obama administration has thrown its support behind the program. This month, Janet Napolitano, Obama’s Homeland Security secretary, directed her agency to expand the 287(g) program.

Chatham County, and similar communities across the country – in places like Mississippi, New Jersey, and Kentucky – provides a powerful argument for doing just the opposite. One speaker, towards the end of the hearing thanked his commissioners. "Thank you. This is the first step to deal with these issues in a non-insane way. From here we can figure out a compromise."

Jessica Weisberg is a NACLA Research Associate.

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