In the first mayoral debate last month, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts was unequivocal in her opposition to the controversial 287(g) program, a partnership between the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office and the federal government to identify and detain people in the country illegally.
But Roberts helped bring 287(g) to Charlotte.
In February 2006, as a Mecklenburg commissioner, Roberts was part of a unanimous vote to approve an agreement between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the 287(g) program – the first government east of Phoenix to do so.
During the same meeting, she also supported spending $236,000 to fund new positions for then-Sheriff Jim Pedergraph’s program, which makes it easier to deport people in the country illegally.
The 287(g) program gave Sheriff’s Office employees training to be in effect federal immigration officers. If someone brought into the jail is found to be in the country illegally, the Sheriff’s Office works with ICE to detain them until the federal government decides whether the person should stay or go.
In most cities and counties, local law enforcement will make no special effort to hold someone past their normal stay in jail.
Through the rest of her tenure as a Mecklenburg commissioner through 2012, Roberts was silent from the dais on the issue of 287(g) – even as local and national immigrant advocates opposed the program, according to a review of meeting minutes. Many said 287(g) made immigrant communities less likely to trust the police to report crimes.
As immigration has become a widely debated issue under President Donald Trump, however, Roberts has become a vocal critic of the administration’s policies.
In the last five months, she has said on many occasions that “no one should be deported because of a broken taillight,” yet her vote to create 287(g) in Mecklenburg made that more likely.
Roberts said Wednesday that she and other commissioners believed a decade ago the program would focus only on violent offenders.
“I think keeping violent offenders off the street should be a priority,” she said.
She said that Congress was considering comprehensive immigration reform at the time, and that the 287(g) would have complemented legislation that would have created a pathway to citizenship for people in the county illegally. That legislation failed.
“I believe 287(g) has gone beyond its original scope, and the Trump administration is making it clear they will use it to disrupt families. I now believe it’s the wrong approach.”
But questions about 287(g) had been raised long before the Trump presidency.
Soon after 287(g) was enacted, a number of immigrant groups blasted the partnership, saying it was targeting people who weren’t violent.
A 2009 UNC-Chapel Hill and American Civil Liberties Union study questioned how 287(g) was being used in the state, including Mecklenburg County. For instance, the report said, “the arrest data appears to indicate that Mecklenburg and Alamance Counties are typical in the targeting of Hispanics for traffic offenses for the purposes of a deportation policy.”
In April 2010, a number of people, including LaWana Mayfield, who would become a City Council member a year later, spoke at a commissioners meeting against the 287(g) program. Mecklenburg commissioners, including Roberts, did not respond.
“I remember numerous community conversations about it,” Roberts said. “I remember meeting with ICE officials to try and straighten out what’s going on. We were hearing different things from different sides.”
A review of the minutes from Mecklenburg commissioners meetings shows no instances in which Roberts or other commissioners raised questions about the program, however. Commissioners fund the Sheriff’s Office, and they could have leverage to impact how it’s being run.
“The county clearly has the ability to affect policy, and they can effect what it pays for (in funding the Sheriff’s Office),” said Republican commissioner Jim Puckett. “She was there. I don’t remember her having a problem with it.”