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Along with 58,000 illegal immigrants. Politicians and local officials are calling for their heads, but they say they can’t go home. And they can’t get legal. It’s a mess

“Ana” is a petite, thirty-one-year-old Costa Rican who looks utterly lost. She looks frightened and sad and a little bewildered, too, and she says she feels this way all the time in Charlotte. Legally, she shouldn’t be here, she admits, her big brown eyes all watery. But, morally, she can’t be anywhere else. She has a sick mother back home along with a young son she never sees—she has a whole list of relatives reliant on her, really. Paychecks, where she’s from, are almost impossible to come by, Ana says. Here, the opportunities blow her mind. She makes so much money working at a grocery store, “I can’t even spend it all,” she says, showing a smile that’s soft and rare. Ana makes $240 a week.

When she first came to the States about six years ago, she didn’t plan to stay. She came, she says, to stay with a woman who knew her family, another Costa Rican who married a man in Raleigh and invited Ana to live with her for six months in order to learn English. It seemed like a big opportunity. But when Ana came, securing temporary papers, she was more indentured servant than student. She says the couple made her scrub the house and strapped her with their infant, and she received no pay for her work, not even English lessons. In fact, the woman who invited her barely spoke to Ana at all, she says. With no money or means of getting home, she felt imprisoned. “I was tricked,” she says.

Ana managed to get away. She found a factory nearby where she was hired without having to produce a work visa, and she made just enough there to regain some control of her life. She left the people who’d invited her to America, and made it on her own in Raleigh for a brief time, before locating some other friends in Charlotte. She moved here to live with them in 2002, and necessity drove her to that grocery store she won’t name, where no one, she says, checked her immigration status. “Oh, it’d be different now,” Ana says. “Today they’d ask for documentation.” In the few years she’s lived here, Ana says she’s seen the situation for illegal immigrants grow increasingly difficult, not just because more people are pursuing their papers, but because they feel overwhelmingly disliked. Ana says she lives in constant fear that she’ll be discovered or, even hurt. She tells a story about a Hispanic woman she knows who says she was raped in a bar, and Ana worries her friend’s ethnicity might have been a factor.

“And so you might say, ‘why don’t you go home then?’ ” Ana says. “I stay because, once you see how much money you can make, how much you can send home to your family, I feel I have to.” Once you’ve started providing food and healthcare and security for your loved ones, she asks, how do you just stop?

Ana is right when she says the situation for illegal immigrants in this country has grown tougher. The United States has an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living here, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and it’s harder than ever for them to secure papers—from green cards, which allow legal residency, to visas, which provide visitation permits on work, school, or family-related grounds—because, while the amount of people coming into the country has increased over the years, the number of papers granted to immigrants has not kept up. In effect, they’ve been limited, due to waiting lists that have clogged the system. 

“Americans are always asking, ‘why don’t those people just get legal?’ ” says Alan Gordon, a well-known local immigration lawyer. “Well, under our federal laws, they can’t.”

Immigration advocates like Jess George, associate director of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition, say that the country’s laws haven’t changed because too many of its citizens don’t want them to. The situation for immigrants is unnecessarily rough and looks to remain that way, George says, because the public tide has turned against them, and politicians have followed. Sept. 11, 2001 was the turning point. For many people, the 11 million illegal immigrants here are an illustration of how vulnerable and ultimately accessible America still is. The result, immigration advocates say, is an anti-immigration wave that’s led to the inhumane treatment of thousands seeking amnesty in the United States. Hispanics, they say, who represent the majority of illegal immigrants, have become the unlikely scapegoats of a post 9/11 era.

“There’s a lot of fear-mongering going on,” George says, “and it’s entirely inappropriate. Politicians have taken advantage of the fact that it’s easier than ever to get votes here, to paint the problem black and white, and by doing so, they’re pandering to the lowest common denominator. It’s like people want to commit a war of attrition against immigrants, to make it so hard to live here, nobody will want to.”

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter last year that “this is the hottest issue I’ve ever seen. And it’s going to be the hottest issue, maybe next to Iraq, in the [next] presidential election.” Pendergraph’s opinions are making national news because Mecklenburg County has found itself at the very center of the nation’s immigration controversy. North Carolina—not Texas, Arizona, or another border state—has seen the largest influx of immigrants of anyplace in the country. Over the past fifteen years, there has been a 412 percent increase in the number of foreigners living in the state, about five times the national average, and the majority of North Carolina’s immigrants have flocked to Charlotte. A recent report requested by Mayor Pat McCrory says that 58,000 of them are without proper papers.

The current political climate has made the issue of immigration a prickly one in many states, but it’s positively salient in Charlotte. North Carolina is one of the ten fastest growing states in the nation; Charlotte is its fastest growing city. The reason we attract so many legal and illegal immigrants is ample job opportunity. The Queen City’s banking and technology businesses have drawn workers with fancy degrees from all over the world; its explosive development brings the laborers. Charlotte Center City Partners says that last year, builders began construction or announced plans for more than $5.1 billion of development activity within the urban core, including 8,300 new homes, more than 1 million square feet of retail space, and 4 million square feet of office space. That doesn’t even count the booming suburbs. From the construction of office buildings, shopping centers, and homes to the maintenance of the greenery that surrounds them, to the running of our many restaurants, Charlotte has gained a reputation for being a goldmine of blue-collar work opportunity. Says George, “Why does illegal immigration hit Charlotte so hard? It’s economics. It’s really that simple. If there were no jobs, there’d be no illegal immigrants.”

Two other factors continue to push immigration onto the forefront: prominent personalities, like Pendergraph, who have taken innovative—and, according to immigration advocates, cruel—steps to rid the county of its illegals, and a rash of fatal car accidents in Charlotte involving intoxicated illegal immigrants that have collectively outraged the community.

Pendergraph was the first law enforcement official east of California to sign up for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program 287(g), an amendment to the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Passed last year, it allows local law officers to practice immigration enforcement (formerly, only federal agents could do so) if they sign up for training with ICE. Nationally, the program’s debut went largely unnoticed. Pendergraph, however, was all over it. He enrolled a dozen of his staffers, ten deputies and two officers, who now work full time ferreting out illegals from their jurisdiction over the county jail (the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department patrols the streets; the sheriff’s department runs the jail).

Basically, 287(g) allows Pendergraph and his staff to check the immigration status of anyone who’s arrested for anything (and Pendergraph’s office is reportedly the only one in the nation to do so to everyone put behind bars), and to begin processing the deportation of illegals if they’ve committed any crime, from a violent act to a traffic citation. Most cops—those in Charlotte and across the country—haven’t followed in Pendergraph’s footsteps because conventional wisdom dictates that doing so would hinder local, daily police work—if foreigners fear the police, they’re less likely to report crime or volunteer information. Pendergraph seems to think that if more illegal immigrants are deported, there won’t be as many investigations to hinder in the first place. The sheriff refused to comment for our story, but he has previously told reporters such things as: “I don’t get it that people can defend the illegal immigrant status” and “they all talk about [illegal immigration] but no one is doing anything but talking. No one is doing anything but me.” Pendergraph’s media relations liaison, Julia Rush, says he wouldn’t discuss the issue with this magazine because newspapers printing such quotes have “twisted things.” He has also previously said that, now that he and his staff have tried out the program, lots of other law enforcement agencies are calling to ask him about it.

Since his department implemented 287(g) last May, Pendergraph says the county has identified 1,520 illegal immigrants who will be deported. During three days in February alone, the sheriff’s crew says they arrested forty-eight illegal immigrants, including twenty-six-year-old Sergio Figueroa Uribe, who is accused of sexually molesting a child, and twenty-five-year-old Jose Antonio Vanegas-Rodriguez, who had been convicted of driving while impaired three times.

Even if Pendergraph weren’t hunting them down, illegal immigrants would still be having a tough time these days in Charlotte, due to a host of heavily publicized DWI deaths caused by Latinos. Of the 1,520 illegal immigrants mentioned above, 318 were arrested for DWI. In July 2005, Mount Holly teacher Scott Gardner was killed and his wife was left severely disabled after an intoxicated illegal immigrant with five previous DWI charges plowed his truck into their car. Several other cases occurred soon after. An eighteen-year-old UNC Charlotte freshman named Min Chang, a forty-nine-year-old security guard named Tony Grier, a twenty-three-year-old auto mechanic named Shawn Michael Robinson, and a thirty-three-year-old railroad conductor named Frank “Buddy” Cline, were all killed by illegal immigrants driving drunk. In February, eleven fatal drunk-driving accidents were pending in Charlotte’s court system. In six of those cases, illegal immigrants were behind the wheel. Latinos make up 8 percent of the population in Charlotte, but they were responsible for 21 percent of DWI arrests in 2005.

The accidents have infuriated many in Charlotte, including Congresswoman Sue Myrick, who’s been gaining national notice for her rigid stance on illegal immigration. She wants cops across the country to effectively become immigration police. Myrick worked closely with Pendergraph to bring 287(g) to Charlotte, and after Gardner’s death, she asked for money for a new immigration office, court, and detention center in Charlotte (the federal government is considering sending those funds to Charlotte, but several other cities are competing for the cash). She also sought help from the governor in making it tougher for illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, threatening to withhold highway money for the state if he didn’t. Myrick also proposed a $10,000 fine for businesses that hire undocumented workers—a fine, it turns out, that her own stepson would have to pay; restaurateur Alex Myrick was recently outed for (unknowingly, he says) employing several illegal immigrants in both kitchens of his two popular, high-end eateries. “The accidents have had a great effect in bringing the issue to a boiling point here,” Myrick says, adding that she’s received tremendous support from her constituents in her efforts to boot illegal immigrants. When asked during a news conference about the importance of remembering that the majority of drunken drivers each year are American, she said, “Yes, they shouldn’t be doing it either, but they are citizens of this country.”

Maudia Melendez of the Jesus Ministry, a local Latino advocacy group, likens Pendergraph’s widespread crackdown to a witch hunt, saying that he’s turning any form of arrest into an iron-clad excuse for deportation, and that good, hardworking people are being kicked out of America on technicalities. “The sheriff told The Charlotte Observer he’s the only one doing something about the immigration issue,” Melendez says, her voice brittle. “Well, he’s certainly right. He’s destroying families.” And Anna Miriam Vazquez, president of the local chapter of the nonprofit Latino-aid group Unisal, says that while there’s no excuse for drunk driving, the actions of a few have caused all immigrants here to be “treated like criminals, like terrorists.” Vazquez claims that local law enforcement has been removing immigrants who deserve to be in Charlotte, “people who’ve been here for ten to twelve years. People on political asylum, who’ve had kids here, who have houses and cars,” she says. “Everything they have will be lost.”

Vazquez and Melendez and other advocates like them have devoted themselves to publicly defending illegal immigrants because the one thing no one seems to know about illegal immigrants, they say, is this: Most want to play by the rules. Most would love to have legal papers. It’s just incredibly difficult to get them.

Ask Pedro Barco, a legal citizen who worked for almost a decade with Gordon, his lawyer, to get his two children visas so they could come to Charlotte to live with him. Barco’s son, Jose, is eighteen; his daughter, Yanet, is a few years younger. In all the time that they were growing up, “I’ve never even been able to get them temporary visas so they could even visit,” Barco says. “When you have someone like Alan, you have all the help you can get. And still it’s all so hard, still it took so long.”

Barco says Yanet and Jose live in a poor, rural town in Mexico, the kind of place where, he says, “there are no opportunities.” Barco fathered his children by the time he turned twenty-two (he has no relationship with their mother), during a period in which he was traveling often from the U.S. to Mexico in order to give money to all the family he’d left behind there, including his parents and nine siblings. Barco left Mexico for the first time at the tender age of thirteen. “I come from a real poor family,” he explains. “We grew corn, beans, but there were ten kids. I told my parents, ‘I can go work, I can send you money.’ They didn’t want me to leave.”
But the opportunities in America sounded too good to pass up. Barco and five buddies—all teens—met a guy who promised to help them cross the border and find jobs in the U.S. if they could pay him $250. Together, the boys managed to scrounge up the money. “We crossed the river illegally,” Barco says. “He was an American guy, and he sold us to a farmer.”

The farmer paid people to bring him cheap labor from Mexico. Barco says he and his friends worked themselves to the bone on a patch of Arkansas land for $20 a week. When they grew tired of the abuse, they caught a bus to Dallas, where they’d heard they could get jobs in construction. After four years doing that, Barco, then eighteen, moved to Florida to pick tomatoes and then to South Carolina to pick peaches. “That’s when I got my green card,” he says. The process, back then, was not terribly difficult, Barco says. But by the time he tried to get his children out of Mexico, things had changed. America looks at foreigners differently now, he says.
Barco has his own landscaping business now in Charlotte. And, finally, after around $7,000 in legal fees and many years after their birth, he has secured visas for Jose and Yanet, twin cards he shuffles over and over again as he talks about the difficulty he’s had in getting them. He’s making arrangements to move them here.

“The demand [for visas and green cards] is so great,” explains Gordon, “we’ve developed these long waiting lines.” Once the year’s quota is met (last year, Gordon says, only 226,000 visas were issued outside of the “immediate relative” category, which refers to spouses and minor children), immigrants must wait to fit into a future year’s allocation—a process which often delays a person’s papers for anywhere from five to ten years. Immigrants, for example, who have overstayed a visa, or who have come here without a legal one, or who have previously been deported, are automatically barred from the U.S. “The government will come out and say there are no visas available for the foreseeable future,” Gordon says, “but no one knows what that means.”

Says George, “There are only 5,000 unskilled labor visas given out each year, when there are 500,000 new jobs in that sector each year. That’s ridiculous. Things are so backed up it can take up to ten years to get someone’s spouse here. We have an extraordinarily complex system, and the complexity of the system is used to victimize people.”

What are easy to get, Barco says, are fake papers. “You can buy a green card and a social security card for about $150,” he says. “Lots of people in Charlotte have them.”

Gordon’s been specializing in immigration out of an office in Dilworth for the past thirty years. He has devoted his life’s work to helping foreigners obtain visas because he’s convinced that the country is “losing the best and brightest.” “Everyone agrees that the U.S. cannot exist in isolation from the world,” he says. “Everyone is preaching we’re in a global economy, but we’re losing workers and great thinkers because getting [visas] is so convoluted, so complex. It’s not the forms that are complicated, it’s the way the laws work. All the ifs, ands, and buts.” What it comes down to, he says, is that “fear and anger over illegal immigration has overshadowed the importance of diversity.”

Gordon has spent the last year as chair of McCrory’s Immigration Study Commission. It was created, Gordon says, in order to confront the myriad issues plaguing Charlotte, and he claims that no other city has taken such an in-depth look at the subject, studying the impact of immigration in the areas of public safety, economic development, education, and healthcare. The panel consisted of twenty-seven volunteers including Pendergraph and members from ICE, along with Dr. Wynn Mabry of the county Health Department, Dr. Kathy Meads of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Dr. John Baker of Carolinas Healthcare System, representatives from UNCC and Davidson colleges, Police Chief Darrel Stephens, Huntersville Mayor Kim Phillips, two reps from Sue Myrick’s office, and the Jesus Ministry’s Melendez, as well as others from the business community and social services sectors. They spent a year working on the project, adjourning a few months ago after they established a laundry list of recommendations.

The list includes obvious items such as clarifying fire and safety codes for foreigners (one common complaint is that, often, too many immigrants live under the same roof), providing incentive pay to bilingual emergency responders, and bolstering programs at the health department that would help guard against communicable diseases. Other recommendations would demand major new funding. The panel supports Myrick’s request for an immigration court, and it wants more jail and immigration detention space. It calls for the hiring and training of more officials to deal with immigration in all of the four areas it studied. The report also suggests revising current laws to improve border security and to “increase the number of professional temporary and permanent employment-based visas to assure that this country remains on the forefront of global competitiveness.” However, the committee failed to reach a consensus on some of the hottest topics in town, including whether to automatically deport DWI offenders, whether police should be participating in 287(g), and whether to issue more work visas in order to contend with the labor shortages the report says are occurring in various areas.

The mayor says he’s “very proud of the volunteers. I think, overall, they came up with excellent recommendations. I don’t agree with them all, but that wasn’t the point. My goal was to get the conversation moving in a productive manner.” McCrory says he wants, for example, stricter laws than do some panel members on the topics where consensus wasn’t reached. “The DWIs, the Crime Suspect Status Policy (involving 287(g)), I would have been more conservative in that type of thing,” he says. Several of the panel’s recommendations though, McCrory says, are already being implemented, such as housing limitations, “gang tracking” (the panel wants police to keep count of foreign-born gang members), and the rewording of city labor contracts in an effort to keep taxpayer funds from supporting illegal immigrants. “There are a couple of weaknesses,” McCrory adds, noting that the report did not make suggestions on how to eradicate false identification used by illegals or determine how the children of illegal immigrants should be tracked in schools, but nonetheless, he says, it’s largely been helpful. “I’ve presented the report to the Charlotte City Council,” McCrory says, “and the county commission got it the other day. I’ll show it today to Senator [John] McCain (who was in town for a fundraiser) at lunch. We want people to know this is a local debate, not just a federal one.”

“It’s not like we came up with solutions to the country’s problems,” Gordon says, “but we came up with some very important recommendations to make the city safer.” (The report is available on Gordon’s website,

The Latin American Coalition’s Jess George says she’s unimpressed with the panel’s work, because she doesn’t think its recommendations are radical enough to change things. The issues they plainly stated they couldn’t agree on, she says, are the ones “destroying so many lives.”

Take 287(g). “The program is creating so much fear in the community,” George says. “We have countless people coming through our doors who say, ‘my husband was just deported. He had the job. How are my kids going to eat?’ People are getting deported for minor offenses. Or false ones.”

Or the issue of the drunk driving arrests. “Which actually isn’t a deportation issue at all,” George says. “Drunk driving is a human issue, not a Latino or racial one. If you kill someone in an accident like that, you should go to jail, not be deported. That being said, and I don’t want to come off in any way as defending their behavior, but there is also an educational component, a cultural clash, that’s a factor here. Drinking and driving is a little more acceptable in some Latino cultures—in lots of places, it’s a non-issue, because they don’t have the highways we do, the traffic.” George says the coalition has recently joined with police to address the problem by putting up educational billboards and publicizing information about the dangers of drinking and driving on Latino radio stations and newspapers.

What Charlotte needs, George says, is a major attitude adjustment, which should start, she says, with our officials. “People like Sue Myrick have proposed bills that criminalize everyone,” she says. “When you can use words like ‘illegal alien’ you can make the issue black and white. We have a lot of politicians who play to that in order to save their own jobs, politicians who say, ‘this is a country of laws.’ Well, they’re right. But it should be a country of enforceable, practical, humane laws.” George thinks that if most people were aware of just a few of the desperate stories she hears every day at the coalition, that they’d see, she says, illegal immigrants as humans instead of felons.

Ana, who has sought help from George, agrees. “I’ve never done anything criminal,” she says. “I always pay my taxes, my parking tickets. I love this country. I love the people, too. But the government makes them think bad things about us…like because some people had accidents, we are all criminals.”

And George says the most recent headline here in Charlotte will only make situations like Ana describes worse: Bank of America drew angry protests a month ago after it released a credit card seemingly targeted at illegal immigrants (the bank is allowing people to sign up for the card without presenting a Social Security number). When news about the card circulated, BofA says, customers began closing accounts and sending in letters with chopped-up credit cards.

“There’s so little empathy,” George says, sighing. “What they’re doing for their families is what you or I would do for our families, if push came to shove.”
Ana says she’ll continue to stay in Charlotte until someone makes her leave, and even though she’s miserable hiding here, she prays that day will never come. Obtaining legal status, she says, “will take a miracle. I’ve been to three different lawyers. I don’t want to be illegal. No one wants to be illegal. We want to be happy, to feel free, to work hard.

“I hope that the government will one day understand that we are people, like you, with needs,” Ana says. “So many of us are here because our country’s economies are bad. Where we come from, people don’t have anything. I don’t want [my son] to be poor like that, like how I used to be. I pray that God will give us the option to keep helping our families and to continue helping to build this country, too. God blessed this country,” she says. “That’s why there’s so much immigration. He knows this country can handle it.”

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