Along the Way: Detained at Daybreak

A few thoughts on ICE and people who vanish on a sunny day


Michael Graff


ON THE MORNING of February 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained a young man behind a shopping center I can see from my home-office desk. At that moment, I happened to be walking in front of the shopping center. I didn’t see anything.

I’d gone on a run through the streets of Sheffield Park and Winterfield, the neighborhoods next to ours, between Independence Boulevard and Central Avenue in east Charlotte. The homes in Sheffield Park and Winterfield are all middle class. Midcentury ranches line the streets, with a few split-levels mixed in. It’s comforting because it reminds me of where I grew up. As a kid, I always believed folks with the split-levels had a little more money, maybe good government jobs, because their homes had stairs. We never had stairs.

On mornings in Sheffield Park and Winterfield, parents walk their kids to Winterfield Elementary, and boys and girls dribble soccer balls on the track at Eastway Middle School. Most are Latino.

That Wednesday morning was unseasonably warm, but something else seemed off. The people didn’t wave or nod or say hello; they just stared into the distance. 

I jogged up a hill on Rosehaven Drive toward its intersection with Central. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer drove slowly in the opposite direction. In many Charlotte neighborhoods, a police cruiser might ease residents’ minds. But in Winterfield, I saw a young girl with a bookbag glance at the officer out of the side of her eye, then gaze back down at the concrete sidewalk.

CMPD, as a local authority, has no affiliation with ICE. But if you’re a young Latino girl in east Charlotte these days, anyone with a badge probably seems scary. A few houses behind the girl was an adult woman, I presume her mother, standing against a chain-link fence in her backyard and gesturing: Go, go.

A nation must have immigration processes, and those processes won’t always seem friendly or good-hearted. I think most of us accept that. But we can also agree that immigration law enforcement has grown more hostile since early 2017. ICE arrests were up 11 percent last year, deportations 13 percent. 

For generations, the U.S. rarely deported people who’d established themselves in communities. Now, with the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, ICE has few limitations. That may make for a winning national political platform, but it’s bad policy for public safety in our cities and neighborhoods. Programming 11 million undocumented immigrants to distrust law enforcement makes it harder for local officers to investigate crimes like assaults and home invasions. CMPD realized this in the years after ICE’s formation post-9/11, and both former Chief Rodney Monroe and his successor, Kerr Putney, have often stated that it’s not the department’s job to enforce federal law.  

Throughout February, ICE’s aggression overshadowed the fine work of CMPD officers. One Friday, police managed a high-speed chase through city streets to a peaceful end. A week later, CMPD shined on NBA All-Star weekend, keeping 150,000 visitors moving and happy and unharmed. Bad things happen, we’ve all learned by now, when large groups of people feel stuck.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Putney, a well-known critic of social media, started tweeting on the same day ICE’s regional director came to town for a press conference to tell us about our “new normal.”

“Very proud of the professionalism, restraint and outstanding police work by our officers today!” Putney wrote in his first tweet, 20 minutes after the high-speed chase ended. That exclamation mark does a lot of work.

On my run, I made a left on Central and passed immigrant-owned restaurants and stores where business has slowed since the raids because immigrants are staying home. Construction workers of either legal status have stopped showing up in the mornings. I don’t care where you stand on immigration policy—surely you can see that frightening 10 percent of our population underground doesn’t make our community safer or more productive. 

That’s one reason voters last year elected Garry McFadden as Mecklenburg County sheriff. The former CMPD detective promised to end the county’s participation in 287(g), a federal program that allows local authorities to detain undocumented immigrants for ICE to process and possibly deport. ICE’s regional field director, Sean Gallagher, claimed during the press conference that the Sheriff’s Office had released dangerous people—“rape, sex offenses, they released a murderer,” Gallagher said—as a direct result of its breakaway from 287(g). That’s dubious logic: the Sheriff’s Office let an all-caps MURDERER walk Charlotte’s streets because he’s undocumented? McFadden, of course, denies this.

How’s an immigrant to trust authorities when the authorities clash? How do immigrants distinguish between good and bad badges? How do any of us? 

Maybe that’s the point: confusion. To sacrifice trust for tribes, and to make sure that some tribes win and others go away, voluntarily or in the back of unmarked vans. Maybe this column makes you furious. Maybe you think, “Good! The more, the better! Go, ICE!” I’ll pose one more scenario to you, specifically: Let’s say one day, someone you love is walking through Charlotte and something bad happens, a mugging or worse. And let’s say the only witness is an immigrant, documented or undocumented, who can’t tell which authority she should trust or which authority she should fear, who, when asked to answer questions, says, “I didn’t see anything.”

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