Opinion: The City’s Impotence on Immigration

Anger at the City Council over ICE raids is understandable, futile


Published:

The Day Without Immigrants rally February 16 in Marshall Park.

Greg Lacour

You can sympathize with the thousands of Latino residents of Charlotte terrorized by the recent federal immigration raids, and with the 200 or so frightened and angry people who shouted down the City Council on Monday. You can think the Trump Administration’s ongoing “military operation” against undocumented immigrants through Immigration and Customs Enforcement is wrong, un-American, even fascistic.

At the same time, you can acknowledge that screaming abuse at Mayor Jennifer Roberts and City Council members won’t accomplish much of anything. What happened in the council chambers Monday night carried a clear echo of the post-Keith Scott protests in September, when members of the city’s black community grilled Roberts and the council over the shooting, police tactics, and economic disparity. That was an ugly night, but the protesters then were at least directing their anger toward the proper target, the people who set city policy.

On Monday night, Latino protesters were yelling at city officials to show leadership, to “do something!” and “stand up!,” as if Charlotte or any city can prevent a federal law enforcement agency from detaining whomever it wants when it wants. “No more ICE!,” people chanted. Yes, that would be a good thing. But Roberts cannot snap her fingers and make ICE disappear. She also can’t summon ground troops or dig a moat around Charlotte.

Immigration policy is complicated and frustrating enough, and confusion over the loaded term “sanctuary city” adds an extra layer of thick fog to the issue. There’s no specific definition. Generally, it refers to local governments that limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE. That would appear to apply in broad terms to Charlotte, where the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has a longstanding policy of not enforcing federal immigration law—it doesn’t enforce federal tax law, either—or profiling people based on their immigration status.

But CMPD has no power to withhold information from ICE agents or prevent ICE from doing its job. Not only that: It’s illegal under a 2015 state law. City officials say their compliance with the law means Charlotte isn’t a sanctuary city. Members of the General Assembly, though, have already threatened to withhold tens of millions in tax revenue from Charlotte based on their eye-of-the-beholder perception that CMPD’s non-enforcement of immigration law means it’s a de facto sanctuary city. And since North Carolina cities are formally subdivisions of the state government, the legislature can define the term any way it wants—and, while they’re at it, allude to dissolving the city government, something it has the legal authority to do.

The city could, perhaps, defy Trump’s executive order; flout the 2015 state law; or follow San Francisco’s lead and sue the federal government. That might make for inspiring symbolism, but it wouldn’t make any Charlotte resident safer and probably would make things worse. The group that organized the protest Monday, Comunidad Colectiva, made these specific demands of the city: “Fight” the state law and longstanding 287(g) program, manner unspecified; require police to “use discretion” in dealing with undocumented immigrants (they already do); and provide money for legal services for the undocumented (imagine the backlash against immigrants with that in the budget).

The organization made the same demands during its “Day Without Immigrants” rally and march two weeks ago, plus another: “City Council to STAND UP FOR IMMIGRANTS.” That gives you a clue about what’s really at work here. Let’s say the City Council “stands up” and, for example, issues a more strongly worded proclamation about how much Charlotte values its immigrant community. What then? Would that make a bit of difference the next time ICE decided it was a nice day to round up some undocumented Latino construction laborers on their way to work?

The scene in the council chambers Monday night had nothing to do with real-world policy and everything to do with a community of angry, frightened, frustrated people who woke up three weeks ago in a country they thought they knew and quickly realized they no longer did. They’re desperate for anyone to listen, to help. It’s awful and heartbreaking, unworthy of our country and city. “We see your fear,” Roberts told them. None of them wants to hear about the statutory limits of city authority, that there’s next to nothing Charlotte can do about immigration law enforcement when the state and federal governments carry all the power. But it’s the truth.

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