Illegal immigration and law enforcement
Police here operated for years under what amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward illegal immigrants.
As elsewhere in the United States, law enforcement officers did not check the immigration status of people they came into contact with, and in the vast majority of cases, a run-in with the law carried little threat of deportation.
But that accommodation for the burgeoning illegal population ended abruptly in April, when the Mecklenburg County sheriff's office began to enforce immigration law, placing more than 100 people a month into deportation proceedings. Some of them had been charged with violent crimes, others with traffic infractions.
The program takes one of the most aggressive stances in the United States toward illegal immigrants, and officials in scores of communities, including Herndon and Loudoun County, have been considering adopting their own version. The House earlier this month was weighing a measure "reaffirming" the authority of local law enforcement agencies to arrest people on suspicion of violating immigration laws.
Some Latino leaders say the program here is contributing to a discriminatory climate in which Hispanic drivers feel as if they are being "hunted" by police. And some law enforcement agencies elsewhere have shied away from enforcing immigration laws, saying that doing so would rupture any trust they have developed in Latino neighborhoods.
But advocates see it as a way to catch illegal immigrants who slip through porous federal enforcement measures and then run afoul of state or local police.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph says there should be little sympathy for illegal immigrants caught by his program: They have already broken the law once by being here illegally, and then been arrested on suspicion of another crime.
"When any of them cross that border without proper documentation, they've violated the law -- however insignificant it may seem to some people," he said. "I've heard sad stories about folks wanting to come up here and have a better life and earn money for their family. I've arrested bank robbers who've had the same excuse."
While the program has led to the removal of many illegal immigrants charged with felonies, people arrested for lesser charges such as traffic violations are also subject to deportation. That, according to Hispanic leaders, has created a constant worry for people who are in the United States illegally and now fear deportation after a simple traffic stop.
Many illegal immigrants lack valid licenses. As a result, they now risk not only arrest but also deportation whenever they drive.
"It's tense, very tense," said Angeles Ortega-Moore, director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte. "It used to be everybody here loved the Latinos. They would say, 'We like you more than the blacks.' Now we're like the Big Bad Wolf."
"The law enforcement community is split on this issue," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The local agencies against enforcing immigration law "are concerned about the chilling effect it will have on immigrants' cooperation with law enforcement," he said.
In Mecklenburg County, about 1,200 foreign-born people have been arrested since April, on charges ranging from traffic violations and trespassing to sex crimes, and nearly 600 have been found to be here illegally.
"We Like You More Than the Blacks"