As images of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the U.S. southern border continue to horrify every person with a pulse and Trump administration policies fail to ameliorate the crisis in any way, North Carolina legislators seem intent on bringing the crisis home.
Last week, the state Senate approved House Bill 370 , a proposal that would force sheriffs to comply with every “detainer” request that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issues when someone is processed in a local jail. The bill now awaits a final vote of approval in the House. After Gov. Roy Cooper announced his opposition to the bill, House members pushed forward House Bill 135 , a measure that would accomplish virtually the same result. While proponents of these bills argue these policies are needed to ensure community safety, the real impact will clearly be to create and promote fear among immigrant communities.
Because ICE issues detainers upon arrest rather than after individuals are convicted of any offense, the detainers are used as a tool to deport our immigrant neighbors who all too often committed no crime at all.
For example, when law enforcement is called to assist during a domestic violence dispute, police will often charge and arrest both parties for violations of the law without much concern for who is the victim and who is the abuser. It is then the court’s job to convict the party at fault and dismiss the victim’s charges. However, by the time a victim’s charges are dismissed, ICE has already issued a detainer request and quite possibly removed the victim from the local jail to a facility in Georgia, away from legal representation, far from resources, and all too often, ripped apart from her children.
Given such a terrifying backdrop, why would immigrants ever report crimes when doing so could put them on the road to a deplorable detention center and on a fast track to deportation? Not surprisingly, data confirm that when local authorities increase cooperation with immigration enforcement in an indiscriminate manner, immigrant communities are less likely to report crimes, making all North Carolinians less safe.
It is especially shortsighted to look at what is happening at the border in isolation from these North Carolina conditions. This administration’s chosen tool to address immigration is fear, whether at the border or in our communities. The policy of separating families who come to the U.S. border seeking asylum is predicated on making people afraid that they will lose their children if they exercise their right to ask for asylum.
House Bills 370 and 135 were crafted to spark that same fear: if you drive without a license in order to go buy groceries and you are stopped by police, you may not see your family again; if you report that you have been a victim of a crime to your local police department, your family may be ripped apart.
I, like millions of other Americans, carry the iconic photo  of the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his little daughter, Valeria, washed up on the banks of the Rio Grande embedded in my mind. That picture should serve as a reminder of what our country has become and what our nation’s immigration policies have caused.
But, we should remember that the policies that caused Oscar and Valeria’s death did not develop overnight. The proliferation of programs like 287(g) and “Secure Communities,” created to maximize cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE go back almost two decades.
Even under President Obama’s administration, these programs ripped apart families, deported individuals back to deadly conditions in their countries of origin and fueled anti-immigrant rhetoric. There may not be any viral images from these past deportations seared into our public conscience, but there should be no doubt that thousands upon thousands families suffered and grieved mightily – often in stoic silence.
In his statement of opposition tp the proposed legislation, Gov. Cooper rightfully observed that North Carolina law already provides for the prosecution and conviction of individuals who commit a crime. He might have added that proposals like HB 370 and HB 135 are also undeniably intertwined with the Trump administration’s un-American and, ultimately, counter-productive fear campaign.
I don’t know what it will take for the separation of families caused by policies like those contained in these bills to outrage North Carolinians and move them to demand a shift in policy. Unless, however, we want another tragic viral photograph on our collective conscience, we can no longer afford to adopt a “see no evil” approach.
Raul Pinto (pictured at left) is a staff attorney in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project .