ICE arrest witnessed by students in Charlotte causes alarm across NC

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Immigrants and refugees spoke out against President Trump's executive orders in Greensboro last month. (photo by Jordan Green)

President Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration enforcement have caused mounting anxiety among undocumented people, educators and advocates across North Carolina, but a spokesperson for ICE says it’s business as usual.

Incidents that have caused alarm include a confirmed arrest witnessed by elementary students and school personnel on the west side of Charlotte on Thursday morning. The incident prompted an email from the principal to her staff.

“As many of you have heard or seen this morning, Immigration is arresting illegal immigrants in this area this morning,” Principal Cara Heath wrote to staff at Berryhill School in an email provided to Triad City Beat by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “I know this is upsetting for the kids as well as all of you. Both staff and students watched as some immigrants were taken in on their routes to school this morning.

“Some of you may require counseling help today,” Heath continued, adding that a psychologist would be on site to assist.

Bryan D. Cox, the Southern region communications director for Immigrations Customs Enforcement, said he is aware of only one arrest in the vicinity of Berryhill School. He said the arrest took place 2.3 miles away from the school, on Wallace Neel Road, which runs along the perimeter of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Cox said the arrest was carried out by ICE’s fugitive operation team, and the individual taken into custody was a convicted felon with a felony forgery conviction, along with five driving while intoxicated convictions.

News of the arrest set off alarm among parents of students at Berryhill School, and Heath assured parents in an email on Thursday afternoon that, contrary to rumors, no immigration officers had set foot on the school campus.

“Teaching and learning was conducted as planned in every classroom today,” Heath told parents in the email. “We realize that reports of immigration activity is a very sensitive matter for our students and school families. Please know that we have counselors on site to provide any social emotional support needed at this time.”

Cox said ICE has not conducted enforcement actions at any schools in North Carolina, citing a 2011 memo from then Director John Morton directing agents to avoid making arrests at so-called “sensitive locations,” including schools, churches, hospitals, funerals and weddings, and public demonstrations. Cox emphasized that the order is still in force.

As a gauge of enforcement activity in the past week, Cox said ICE has made about 200 arrests in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, mostly involving individuals convicted of crimes, including murder, robbery, battery and domestic violence-related offenses.

“There’s been a lot of rumor this week alleging something new or expanded,” Cox said. “The fugitive operation team was focused on identifying and arresting individuals who pose the greatest threat to public safety. ICE only conducts targeted immigration enforcement. When they leave for the day they have a list of individuals that we’re looking for. We’re looking for specific individuals. It’s lead-driven enforcement and targeted enforcement. We do not conduct any random enforcement. The claims that have been floating around that have suggested this is something new — this is ongoing enforcement activity.”

Notwithstanding his insistence that ICE is prioritizing undocumented individuals who hold criminal convictions, Cox acknowledged that President Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order flattens distinctions by treating those with criminal convictions the same as individuals who “have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits” or are even suspected of having committed a crime. He said he couldn’t “speculate” on how the executive order might be implemented in the field, and otherwise referred questions about it to the media office at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that ICE launched a series of raids across the country on Thursday and Friday, marking what the newspaper called “the first largescale episode of immigration enforcement inside the United States” since the Jan. 25 executive order. The report said “immigration activists” had documented ICE raids in a dozen locations across the country, including Charlotte and Burlington in North Carolina, along with an ICE checkpoint somewhere in North Carolina.

Triad City Beat could not confirm the reports.

Viridiana Martinez, an organizer in Raleigh with Alerta Migratoria NC who advocates for undocumented people, said she had only heard about an immigration checkpoint in Apex, a town in Wake County, but emphasized that her group was never able to confirm the reports.

Cox said he had not read the Post article and said he didn’t know anything about the alleged incidents in North Carolina.

“If we were in fact there I can tell you categorically it was not a checkpoint or a raid,” he said. “We do not conduct any type of vehicle checkpoint, raid or indiscriminate sweep.”  

The irony of the heightened concern about immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, Martinez said, is that undocumented people who had committed no offense other than being in the country illegally were already being deported in contravention to an Obama-era policy stating that only those with criminal records would be targeted. As an example, Martinez said her organization advocated on behalf of an Appalachian State University student who was arrested by ICE in 2016 without having committed any criminal offense other than being in the country illegally.

A series of arrests across the state in the early months of 2016 caused particular anxiety.

“The reality is that all of this stuff was happening already,” Martinez said. “I can’t tell you how afraid people were when the raids were leaked to the Washington Post in December 2015…. It was  a bunch of teens picked up on their way to school that the Obama administration categorized as national security threats just so they could send this message to Latin America that we’re not going to welcome them.”

Trump’s election and the indiscriminate enforcement codified in the executive order at least brings the agency’s activity’s out into the open, she said.

“In a way I’m like, ‘Yay, I’m so glad we have this asshole who’s not trying to hide who he is, so people understand we have to fight these injustices,’” Martinez said. “He’s ugly and he doesn’t make any effort to hide it.”

If anything, Martinez said, the level of fear among immigrant families she’s encountered as an activist and legal assistant, was higher one year ago than it is today.

“We hadn’t seen that kind of thing before — I’ve heard of all kinds of stories of what they did last year to pick up these kids whose only crime was fleeing these countries [in Central America] that are overwhelmed by criminal cartels and gangs,” she said. “We’re picking them up and intercepting the cars they’re riding in and literally kidnapping them and asking for ransom.”

Andrew Willis Garcés, an organizer who works with undocumented young people in Guilford County, indicated that it remains to be seen whether ICE enforcement activities in North Carolina are playing out in a different way than they did in the past. Citing a recent report about an undocumented woman who was arrested on Wednesday after checking into an ICE office in Phoenix, Garcés said in an email: “It’s not clear yet if some of the other targeted actions [in North Carolina] in the past week or so (they were looking for specific people with convictions) were also somehow indiscriminate, more like the raids of 10 years ago, or not. But clearly in at least a few instances, supervising ICE agents are using a much broader definition of who is a ‘priority’ for deportation. Which is exactly what the orders directed ICE to do.”

Garcés credited local officials like Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan for publicly affirming a welcoming stance towards immigrants, but said many undocumented people are understandably worried that local governments will have little ability to intervene if the federal government undertakes a massive crackdown.

“I think as a community that we have to decide what risks we are willing to take in order to protect communities who are targeted, whether those communities are African-American or immigrant,” Garcés said. “What are we willing to do to create safety? How do we respond to laws that are designed only to harass, intimidate and even separate our neighbors from their families?”

Martinez said the horrified reaction of teachers across the state to deportations carried out against high school students under the Obama administration has created a foundation for resistance in the Trump era.

“Kids were being picked up on the way to school,” she said. “This is how the teachers got involved. Their kids are telling them they’re terrified.”

Martinez applauded a group of parents who addressed the Guilford County School Board with the support of their children’s teachers on Thursday evening.

“These moms are talking to local leaders, saying, ‘Please make the school safe for my kid,’” Martinez said. “That is what needs to be happening. I think there’s the win. With all the chaos, there’s all these people saying, ‘I can no longer sit idly by.’”

  • Jack Witt, Jr.

    Principal Cara Heath wrote to staff at Berryhill School in an email provided to Triad City Beat by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “I know this is upsetting for the kids as well as all of you. Both staff and students watched as some immigrants were taken in on their routes to school this morning.

    “Some of you may require counseling help today,” Heath continued, adding that a psychologist would be on site to assist.

    Bryan D. Cox, the Southern region communications director for Immigrations Customs Enforcement, said he is aware of only one arrest in the vicinity of Berryhill School. He said the arrest took place 2.3 miles away from the school, on Wallace Neel Road, which runs along the perimeter of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Cox said the arrest was carried out by ICE’s fugitive operation team, and the individual taken into custody was a convicted felon with a felony forgery conviction, along with five driving while intoxicated convictions.

    LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT? PRINCIPAL SAYS TEACHERS AND STUDENTS NEED COUNSELING HELP BECAUSE THEY WITNESSED A CONVICTED FELON BEING APPREHENDED?

    cupcakes and rainbows…..what has happened to us?

    • Memphis O

      lol 4 real, dawg