Citizen Green: Lawmakers clash with law enforcement on immigrant IDs

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

We generally don’t expect government to solve problems in this day and age, but at least in the case of our state government in Raleigh we can count on our elected representatives to create some new ones.

Such is the case with the euphemistically titled Protect North Carolina Workers Act, whose primary sponsors include state Rep. Debra Conrad (R-Forsyth). Among other provisions, the bill would prohibit local government or law enforcement agencies from accepting IDs created by any organization other than the state and bars cities and counties from passing any ordinance to preventing law enforcement from gathering information on residents’ citizenship or immigration status.

The bill has been approved by the Senate and was placed on the House calendar for a concurrence vote on Tuesday.

The conservative loathing of “sanctuary cities” feeds a lot of the energy driving the bill. When I talked to Conrad about the it on Monday, she cited the widely reported murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by a man who had been deported to Mexico five times, and a man with a Spanish surname who was arrested closer to home for driving drunk in the wrong direction on US Highway 52.

“We’re not talking about the mainstream illegal population,” Conrad told me. “We need to definitely safeguard the rest of the community, and that would be the rest of the Hispanic community.”

Meanwhile, the provision prohibiting law enforcement from accepting provisional IDs cuts against the fragile trust that some local police officials say they have worked hard to build so they can effectively solve crimes in immigrant communities.

Greensboro police Chief Wayne Scott and Burlington police Capt. Jeff Wood were among those who spoke out against the bill during a press conference called by FaithAction in Greensboro on Monday. Since the program started three years ago, Executive Director David Fraccaro said, IDs have been issued to 3,000 people in Greensboro and in neighboring Alamance County.

“Over the last several years we’ve been working hard to build relations with that community, and we feel like the FaithAction ID has helped,” Capt. Wood said. “If they limit the kind of IDs we can accept, we’re going to have a whole lot more people arrested and thrown in jail tying up our law-enforcement resources.”

The police contend that when they encounter someone without ID who is unable to otherwise prove their identity, they have no choice but to make an arrest, even if it’s for a simple traffic violation or merely stopped on suspicion of committing a crime. Under ordinary circumstances, the subject would be given a ticket and sent on their way. Wood added that the IDs have also been helpful to homeless people, who often lack official identification documents and rarely drive.

Greensboro police Capt. Mike Richey, who heads the criminal investigation division, said the IDs played a valuable role in solving crimes.

“Half of the homicides were domestic violence,” he said. “We have had people tell us we wouldn’t have come forward if we didn’t have the FaithAction ID. We’ve made arrests in a human trafficking case and a child sexual exploitation case — which most everyone would agree is the most heinous type of crime — and those cases came to fruition because of people cooperated with us.”

Conrad waved aside the law enforcement officials’ concerns.

“I’ve been hearing that for a decade,” she said. “I heard that from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. We’re supposed to be a nation of laws.”

As to the matter of tying up law enforcement and court resources by throwing people in jail who have committed no other crime than lacking a valid state-issued driver’s license, Conrad remained unmoved.

“I consider crossing the border a crime, in my opinion,” she said. “It’s federal law. It’s a crime.”

Conrad has long been a crusader against illegal immigration. As a former county commissioner, she told me she went to Washington in 2007 to testify before a Congressional subcommittee.

“That was when the volume — you could see them around,” she said. “The percentage ballooned from single digits in the schools. We had 700 in the jails. You could see the financial strain that it was causing.”

She was frustrated that Forsyth County Sheriff Bill Schatzman refused to follow the lead of Mecklenburg in implementing 287(g), a program that deputizes local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. And she didn’t like that CHANGE, a Winston-Salem organization, was issuing IDs like those created by FaithAction.

“We can’t have these rogue groups, whether it’s a city or county in North Carolina or an advocacy group like CHANGE coming up with IDs,” Conrad said.

Unlike the state and federal government, cities are actually coming up with innovative solutions to problems. That’s why many of us choose to live here; we want to experience democracy at the ground level where we can actually shape our communities and make them more just, inclusive and safe.

It’s a shame that state lawmakers are willing to stamp out a local initiative with a real track record of success so they can pursue a narrow ideological agenda of supposedly cracking down on illegal immigration.