A series of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids that arrested more than 200 illegal immigrants across North Carolina this month have reignited debate over how closely local sheriff’s offices should work with federal agents.

The conflict is especially potent in the state’s urban, Democratic areas. Newly elected sheriffs in the state’s two largest counties have recently ended formal agreements with ICE to help enforce immigration law under a program known as 287(g).

That, ICE leaders say, has threatened public safety and forced the feds to conduct more enforcement out in the community.

But there’s a lot of conflicting information being spread by the sheriff’s offices and ICE. Each side is claiming to be doing what’s best for public safety.

Here are the facts on 287(g) and illegal immigration in North Carolina.

The short version: ICE can still arrest illegal immigrants in North Carolina jails. Sheriffs who decide to leave 287(g) are simply making it a lot more difficult.

What is 287(g)?

The 287(g) program was created under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and basically allows the director of the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency to enter into agreements with local law enforcement. Under these agreements, local law enforcement officers can perform some of the duties of immigrations officials.

These officers get a four-week basic training course, plus a one-week refresher every two years.

By 2017, ICE had agreements with 78 law enforcement agencies in 20 states, though the number fluctuates as new sheriffs are elected or police chiefs appointed.

Which North Carolina counties participate in 287(g)?

As of this writing, four counties participated in 287(g): Cabarrus, Gaston, Henderson, and Nash.

Until late 2018, Wake County and Mecklenburg County also participated. New Democrats recently won the sheriff’s elections in those two counties after campaigning on ending 287(g) — and both quickly did so.

The counties in red are still in the 287(g) program: Henderson, Gaston, Cabarrus and Nash. Wake and Mecklenburg counties are in yellow.

What do North Carolina counties do under this program?

In some parts of the country, local law enforcement officers are able to seek out and arrest illegal immigrants under what’s known as the “task force model.”

That’s not how things are done in North Carolina.

County agreements primarily involve what’s known as the “jail model,” according to a review of the agreements with ICE.

This authorizes county sheriff’s offices to interrogate jail inmates picked up on local charges about their immigration status. Jail officers can also process suspected illegal immigrants in the federal immigration system, write up ICE paperwork, and transport illegal immigrants from county jails directly to ICE detention facilities.

The most important aspect of the program, though, are immigration detainers. This part of 287(g) allows local jails to hold suspected illegal immigrants for up to 48 hours after they’d normally be released on their local charges while ICE decides whether to take them into custody.

What is the argument for 287(g)?

ICE generally focuses on arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who have committed other crimes or pose a threat to public safety or national security.

If agents wanted to indiscriminately arrest people, they’d go to day labor pick-up spots, ICE field director Sean Gallagher said on the radio program Charlotte Talks last week said. But instead, they’re focused on arresting undocumented immigrants who have already committed crimes other than crossing the border illegally.

The 287(g) program is intended to streamline the process by making it easier for ICE to identify and detain illegal immigrants right after they’ve been arrested on local crimes.

The overall philosophy is that “Crimes committed by aliens are 100% preventable,” Gallagher said.

Why did Mecklenburg and Wake counties leave the program?

Mostly because the new sheriffs believe the perception that local officers are working with ICE makes immigrants less likely to report crimes or testify about illegal activity.

In Mecklenburg County, new Sheriff Garry McFadden campaigned primarily on ending the county’s involvement in the program. His argument was that it makes law enforcement’s job more difficult by making illegal immigrants less likely to report crimes or communicate with police, fearing that it could lead to their information making its way to ICE.

“It did not create any trust in the community,” McFadden said on the R&D in the QC podcast earlier this year.

What’s changed now that these counties are no longer part of 287(g)?

County sheriff’s offices still ask inmates about their citizenship status. And under the law, if a county jail cannot identify an inmate, they must notify ICE.

But there are still significant changes.

In Mecklenburg County, ICE had officers at the jail on a daily basis and office space at the jail. Without the program, ICE no longer has that access.

These counties are also no longer honoring ICE detainers. Remember, under 287(g), local jails agreed to detain suspected illegal immigrants for up to 48 hours after they’d normally get out while ICE decided whether to take custody.

Without daily access to the jail, it can take several days for agents to actually show up. By that time, the inmate may have already been released.

Where’s the conflict here?

The main conflict is over which plan is better for public safety.

Sheriffs insist that the changes aren’t that dramatic.

“I didn’t take anything away from them, although people believe that I did,” McFadden said about ICE on the podcast.

ICE can still come to the jail and arrest illegal immigrants, though they need to have all their legal paperwork in order before they can detain somebody, McFadden said.

It is still too early to have any evidence of whether more immigrants are coming forward to report crimes.

However, there is already evidence that illegal immigrants who previously would have been picked up by ICE are now being released back into the community.

Gallagher, the ICE field supervisor, cited several examples from the February raid, including illegal immigrants who had been arrested on weapons charges.

The situation also applies to less dramatic instances. The most common crimes that illegal immigrants were detained for in Mecklenburg County were DUI and assault on a female, both misdemeanors, previous Sheriff Irwin Carmichael said.

Before, ICE could put a detainer hold on them for 48 hours to arrange the paperwork. Now, they get sent right back out into Raleigh and Charlotte.

Cover image via Mecklenburg County


  1. “By 2017, ICE had agreements with 78 law enforcement agencies in 20 states…As of this writing, four counties participated in 287(g): Cabarrus, Gaston, Henderson, and Nash.”

    That’s it? 20 states & only 4 NC counties. Good! I have a duly elected sheriff (Buncombe Co.). I don’t need Raleigh dictating (once again) local policy. #AVLdistricts

    The GOP is all about local government…until local government does something you don’t like. Then you turn to Raleigh or the feds.


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