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Jurisdictions to watch on local enforcement, part four: Alamance County, North Carolina

This entry is the fourth in a series on the involvement of local law enforcement agencies in immigration enforcement under the Trump Administration’s January 25th executive orders and the follow-up February 20th DHS implementation memos. Please see the January 26th introductory entry and prior entries on Orange County, California, Etowah County, Alabama, and Frederick County, Maryland for context.

In the two weeks since my last profile (of Frederick County, MD), media scrutiny of the 287g program has sharpened considerably. I’m particularly grateful to two journalists who have taken the time to better understand the incentive structures at play that may contribute to some sheriffs approaching 287g as an ‘entrepreneurial’ enforcement initiative: Bryan Schatz of Mother Jones, and Tanvi Misra of The Atlantic’s Citylab. Anna Flagg of The Marshall Project has also contributed her considerable visual acumen to portraying the rich historical data on 287g in the public domain in a way that lays bare the program’s national impact – and gives a sense of where immigrant communities may be the most vulnerable moving forward.

Media and public attention on immigration enforcement has become all the more vital in light of the Trump administration’s continued impact on the news cycle; the President’s announcement during his joint address to congress that he was open to ‘compromise immigration reform’ may not be a deliberate distraction from ongoing developments in enforcement and detention, but it certainly seems to have attracted significant media attention that might otherwise have been turned elsewhere. Among the substantive immigration enforcement developments that this and similar high-profile public announcements from the White House pushed out of the headlines were the increasingly aggressive actions of ICE agents themselves, who appear after the reversal of Obama-era discretion policies to be making symbolic arrests that sow fear among immigrant populations. Some of these arrests seem tailor-made to communicate the message that literally nowhere is now safe, undermining any sense of security that might be taken from sanctuary cities or sanctuary campuses. Perhaps more importantly, they undermine the participation of undocumented immigrants (and, frequently, their US Citizen children) in constitutionally-protected human rights like public education and public safety.

This widespread sense of fear and insecurity compounds two other issues of moment regarding immigration control: the enormous and growing backlog of federal immigration cases – in a context where immigrants will now be nearly universally subject to mandatory detention while asylum and other immigration cases are under review – and the now-public efforts of DHS to quickly and significantly expand detention capacity. An expansion of 20 thousand beds indicates that Secretary Kelly expects a nearly 50% increase in the current ‘average daily population’ (ADP) of 41,000 immigrants in detention on any given day. Such an expansion will not only represent a windfall for private/for-profit detention providers like CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group, but also (as I discussed in my last entry) the county sheriffs who operate local jails with spare beds that can be leased to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through intergovernmental service agreements (IGSAs) for what is often a lucrative per diem fee. This phenomenon will likely be especially pronounced in jurisdictions along the US-Mexico border, where the ending of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) ‘catch-and-release’ policy will mean yet another influx of new detainees.

Alamance County is the first of our profile counties whose 287g agreement is no longer in effect, meaning that speculation on the future of the program under the Trump administration is just that. Given, however, that the Alamance County Sheriffs Office (ACSO) lost its 287g agreement in the midst of federal civil rights litigation alleging racial profiling of Latinos under the auspices of the program, signing a new 287g with the ACSO would be a clear repudiation of Obama-era enforcement policy. Such repudiations are arguably the Trump administration’s stock-in-trade across a whole spectrum of policy arenas, but the symbolism of entering an enforcement agreement with a jurisdiction previously under investigation for civil rights violations would be particularly telling.

The Alamance County Sheriff, Terry S. Johnson, appears in many of his public statements to be an ideologue in the Chuck Jenkins mold, if somewhat less outspoken. Perhaps the most significant differences between Alamance and our two prior jurisdictions – Franklin County, Maryland and Etowah County, Alabama – are demographic ones: Alamance, with a population of about 150 thousand, has had a large and growing Latino community since the 1990s, accounting in the last census for over 11% of the county’s population. To reiterate the key characteristics that qualify Alamance County for inclusion in this series:

1) “Jurisdictions to watch” have operated consistently under the same chief executive since before the Obama administration’s efforts to reform 287g. In most cases, this means that the same individual who signed the jurisdiction’s first 287g memorandum of agreement is still making the relevant executive decisions about involvement in immigration enforcement moving forward.

2) They are (with few exceptions) county law enforcement agencies headed by elected sheriffs.

3) They have started deportation proceedings for significant numbers of immigrant arrestees under their 287g programs in the past.

4) They have clear incentives for directly involving their officers in immigration enforcement. While these incentives are often political, they are often financial as well, with direct income and/or indirect ‘economic activity’ arising from close ties to private/for-profit immigrant detention facilities located within the jurisdiction, and/or Intergovernmental Service Agreements (IGSAs) under which ICE pays the jurisdiction a per-day fee to detain immigrants in the local jail.

Alamance County fulfills all four of these criteria, although I should again stress that its 287g agreement was rescinded by the Obama administration in 2012. If anything, this makes it a more important jurisdiction to profile from the perspective of advocacy, as 287g was ended there through the intervention of a tool – federal civil rights litigation – that is unlikely to be available to advocates under the current administration. What other kinds of litigation or approaches to grassroots organizing remain possible in the face of an emboldened immigration enforcement apparatus has yet to be tested, but a renewed 287g agreement in Alamance County would arguably represent an attack on civil rights and constitutional protections necessitating an early test of these strategies.


SHERIFF: Terry S. Johnson.

Johnson, a Republican, has been Alamance County Sheriff since 2002, and is currently under consideration for an appointment to the US Marshals Service under the Trump administration. Johnson, who was accused under the Department of Justice’s 2012 investigation of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) of referring to Spanish speakers as “taco eaters”, “received support [for his appointment] from every sheriff in the other 23 counties in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina”. The Department of Justice brought suit against Johnson himself (rather than the ACSO as a whole) in 2012, after he categorized the DOJ’s findings in their initial investigation as “completely false”. In what was then a first for the DOJ’s civil rights actions against law enforcement agencies, the Department lost its case against Johnson in 2015, with US District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder finding that the government had not proved its case. While the DOJ originally appealed the verdict, it dropped that appeal in August of 2016.

ARRESTEES PROCESSED FOR DEPORTATION UNDER 287G: 280 in 2012 – a number significantly lower than the annual average of 355 that the ACSO achieved in the five preceding years of 287g enforcement, and likely reflecting the pressure that the ongoing DOJ investigation put the department under. Alamance County’s population of 150 thousand was 11% Hispanic or Latino according to the 2010 census, so if most of the arrestees processed for deportation were Latino county residents, around 2% of this community was directly affected on an annual basis. Given the likely indirect effects of this enforcement on children, partners, other family members, and the community at large, Alamance’s immigrant population may have long been familiar with the level of stress and uncertainty currently being experienced by immigrant communities nationwide.

ACTIVE IMMIGRANT DETENTION FACILITIES: The Intergovernmental Service Agreement through which ICE contracted with the Alamance County Jail to provide bed space for immigrant detainees appears to have been rescinded with the county’s 287g MOA in late 2012. At its 2010-11 peak, however, its average of 45 immigrant detainees would have made up 15% of the jail’s average daily population of 300. As recently as 2016, the ACSO shuttered a 76-bed detention center “annex” as a cost-saving measure; as discussed above, there is a clear incentive to monetize this excess bed space under the Trump administration’s expansion of detention capacity.

AVERAGE DAILY POPULATION (ADP) OF IMMIGRANT DETAINEES: The Alamance County Jail held an average of 29 immigrant detainees on any given day throughout 2012. This represents a significant drop-off from the approximate ADP of 89 when the county first signed its 287g MOA in 2007. With a per diem of $61, the ACSO’s detention and related operations yielded $2.6 million from ICE that year – $1.87 million for detention, and $730 thousand for transportation. Alamance’s reduced 2012 ADP indicates a partnership going out of favor in the face of the DOJ’s ongoing civil rights investigation. Under these reduced circumstances, ADP income would likely have been cut by over 50% from documented 2007 levels ($71 * 29 detainees * 365 days) to $750 thousand for detention alone. Alamance’s 2007 IGSA gives us the ability to further estimate a proportional income from transportation of $275 thousand (730k/541 = $1,350 per detainee in 2007, or $1,565 * 176 total detainees in 2012). Thus even under DOJ investigation, Alamance was likely able to clear $1 million in funding for detention and transportation of deportable immigrants. Interestingly, the total funding that could be directly attributed to Alamance’s enforcement activity under 287g – about $1.64 million ($71 * 280 processed for deportation * 60 day average stay = $1.2m, + 280*$1,565=$440k) – is in fact 60% higher than the amount the recorded ADP suggests, illustrating the clear budgetary importance of maintaining the appearance of unbiased enforcement under the Obama-era DHS.

HISTORY OF 287G IN ALAMANCE COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA: As detailed above, Alamance County entered into its 287g enforcement agreement in 2007, as part of a wave of several North Carolina jurisdictions that joined that year. The ACSO’s original 287g memorandum of agreement was an agreement for jail enforcement only, adding a cautionary note to statements by other 287g-supporting sheriffs that jail enforcement agreements are intrinsically safer than street enforcement agreements or comparatively free of bias. The crux of the DOJ’s case against Johnson was research indicating that Latinos in were significantly more likely than other ethnicities to be stopped at ACSO roadblocks and for minor traffic violations, and more likely to be arrested rather than warned or cited when stopped – largely the same kinds of enforcement patterns cited in criticisms that characterized 287g task-force agreements as biased and reliant on profiling. The material difference between task-force and jail-based 287g agreements lies in the fact that interrogation about immigration status takes place within the confines of the county jail in the case of the latter, and in the public view for the former. This difference does not inoculate jail enforcement agreements from patterns of arrest intended to yield higher numbers of detentions and deportations.

CONTEXT AROUND CONTINUED IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT UNDER 287G IN ALAMANCE COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA: As discussed above, whether under Sheriff Johnson during his remaining time in office, or under his successor at a later date, the reentry of an emboldened Alamance County Sheriffs Office into the 287g fold would represent a clear symbolic break from Obama-era cautions around profiling-based immigration enforcement by local jurisdictions. To renew an agreement with Alamance would arguably represent an implicit statement – at most hinted at in Trump’s January 25th Executive Orders and the follow-up Kelly memo – that racial profiling and other forms of biased enforcement would be tacitly acceptable for local jurisdictions acting in support of the administration’s stated detention and deportation goals. Even in the context of an emboldened ICE and an increasingly indiscriminate immigrant detention and deportation regime, this tacit approval of unconstitutional policing practices would represent a new and extreme departure from established professional law enforcement standards – and a redirection of the federal civil rights apparatus (encompassing the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security alike) that has long been tasked with supporting them. Advocates and other close observers may well be expecting this departure, but would do well to keep an eye on Alamance County to see it confirmed.

Daniel L. Stageman, PhD is Director of Research Operations at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a criminologist whose scholarship focuses on making sense of America’s punitive approach to immigrants. He can be contacted at dstageman(at)jjay.cuny.edu. This has been the second in his series of profiles of “jurisdictions to watch” on local immigration enforcement under the new policies promulgated by President Trump’s January 25th executive orders. Next up: Gwinett County, Georgia.

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