When Local Police Do Immigration Enforcement, the Community Suffers

By Julie Peeples 08-03-2009

Two contrasting images recently brought into focus a growing chasm: a forty-something man in jeans and T-shirt squeezing the microphone at a community forum on immigration, face tight with anger as he invokes the words repeated so often these days, "What part of 'illegal' do you people not understand?!"

The other image is the young mother sitting in the church classroom, her face twisted not in anger but in the fear. Her husband is undocumented, his papers long since expired. Each afternoon she prays he will make it home from work; each night she prays there will be no pounding on their front door. Their two young children buzz around her in constant activity.

Such images and stories are becoming commonplace as 287g becomes a reality in Guilford County, North Carolina, a community of over 465,000 where the Latino population is growing at a rate of 6-8 percent each year. 287g is a federal program under the Department of Homeland Security, which grants local law enforcement the power to act as immigration enforcement agents. Originally designed to identify and deport undocumented immigrants convicted of dangerous crimes or terrorist activity, the program has been widely criticized for the high percentage of arrests of Latino-appearing individuals for such offenses as driving without a seatbelt or without a license.

The unintended but all-too-real results? Parents hesitate to find medical care for their children, a simple trip for groceries becomes fraught with anxiety, and innocent men and women refuse to report crimes committed against them for fear that they will be detained and deported. This ripple is slowly widening into a serious erosion of trust in the community, and the furthering of racial/ethnic/cultural divisions -- not to mention the diversion of very limited resources away from serious crimes and an already dangerously overcrowded jail.

Attempting to begin bridging the chasm is an evolving coalition of individuals, agencies, faith community leaders, and concerned citizens. They are working hard to build bridges between immigrants and attorneys, between various agencies, between the immigrant and non-immigrant communities, between the African-American and the Latino communities. Know-your-rights workshops, open forums for faith leaders and others, letter-writing, appearances at local government meetings

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