Discretionary arrests pose threat to undocumented families

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Over the first five months of 2017 the Forsyth County jail held 104 undocumented people arrested by ICE under a federal contract. An additional 53 undocumented immigrants who wound up in deportation entered the jail on local criminal charges during the same period. (photo courtesy of ICE)

Despite promising to not target immigrants, Winston-Salem police officers made a handful of discretionary arrests in the first five months of 2017 involving traffic violations committed by undocumented people who are prohibited by state law from obtaining driver’s licenses.   

Dulce Karina Peralta, a 22-year-old Winston-Salem resident, was driving a 2004 Hyundai station wagon on Reynolds Park Road not long before midnight on Jan. 29 when a Winston-Salem police officer pulled her over for a broken taillight.

The infraction would typically result in a verbal warning or a written citation, but, likely due to the fact that Peralta was not carrying a driver’s license, Officer ST Johnson exercised the discretion to arrest her and book her in the Forsyth County jail. As a penalty for driving a car with a broken taillight and not having a driver’s license, Peralta was one of 53 people who landed there in the first five months of 2017 and wound up being deported after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement flagged them for removal.

A Triad City Beat analysis of court records for 35 undocumented inmates at the jail who were claimed by ICE for deportation revealed five cases like Peralta’s, where defendants wound up in jail for traffic violations or minor infractions. The remainder of the charges were evenly divided between felonies ranging from human trafficking and cocaine possession to indecent liberties with a child; driving while intoxicated; and other misdemeanors, ranging from domestic violence charges to drug paraphernalia.

The Winston-Salem Police Department accounted for 71.4 percent of these arrests of undocumented persons handed over to ICE, with the Kernersville Police Department, Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, State Highway Patrol and state Division of Motor Vehicles filling out the remainder. One of the felonies —  brought by the DMV — involved a 21-year-old Senegalese man and Winston-Salem resident of four years, Papa Alioune Diagne, who was charged with identity theft for possessing a fake Social Security card. (TCB was unable to locate information about local charges for the remaining 13 individuals identified by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office as being held on pending criminal charges and subsequently turned over to ICE.)

Neither the number of people funneled through the jail to ICE nor the breakdown of offenses is especially surprising, but arrests for traffic offenses have prompted acute anxiety within the immigrant community and drawn particular scrutiny among advocates.

FaithAction International House has been working with several law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Winston-Salem police, for four years on an ID program to provide undocumented people and others with identification in an attempt to build trust between immigrants and the police. One purpose of the program is to provide undocumented people with ID so that police don’t have to take them into custody for minor traffic offenses like driving with expired tags or speeding, which would ordinarily be handled through a written citation or verbal warning.

“Part of what we’re attempting to do is have law enforcement understand there are many people who are hard-working and contribute to our community and simply cannot under state law obtain a driver’s license,” said David Fraccaro, FaithAction’s executive director. “What are they supposed to do? Otherwise, it’s not going to work or going to school. A lot of people have to take that risk every day. This wouldn’t be happening if we had a more empathetic state law and federal immigration reform. That would make our roads safer. I hate that anyone is a victim of the inaction that’s happening at the state and federal level.”

Soon after the election of Donald Trump, a coalition of activists began lobbying Winston-Salem City Council to declare itself a sanctuary city — a status that would have directly violated state law and fly in the face of a Trump executive order. As a compromise, Councilman Dan Besse proposed a “Welcoming City” resolution, which declared in a proposed draft: “The city of Winston-Salem recognizes that our whole community is safer when victims and witnesses of domestic violence or criminal activity feel safe in contacting our police for assistance without fear, regardless of their immigration status.”

Besse wound up pulling the resolution from consideration when his colleagues balked at supporting it under the threat of punitive legislation from state lawmakers. In response to council members anxious to reassure their constituents about the city’s role in immigration enforcement, police Chief Barry Rountree drafted a memo dated Jan. 30 declaring: “Members of the WSPD do not ask immigration status, initiate immigration roundups or gather immigration status information during the course of providing law enforcement services.”

Fraccaro characterized the Winston-Salem police as “one of the more hesitant departments in how they talk about their relationship to the ID card.”

Lt. DL Anthony, a field commander with responsibility for patrol on the east side and part of the west side of the city, confirmed that officers have the discretion to take traffic offenders into custody if they aren’t carrying identification. He said the FaithAction ID is one form of identification officers look at, but they typically want to see additional documentation.

“It’s something we look at, but without something to support that document it raises suspicion,” Anthony said. “Some further identification like a bill with their name and address on it may give credence to that card. But with just the card itself the officer may need to do a little more digging.

“If that person can’t prove to the officer that makes the stop who they are, then I would encourage the officer to make the arrest because if they produce a name and we can’t link it to that person, it might be the name of some other person,” Anthony added. “That other person’s license gets suspended because they don’t know they’ve been issued a citation.”

Will Cox, an activist with the Sanctuary City Coalition of Winston-Salem, said that because of ongoing dialogue between clergy members and the police about immigration, he would expect officers to understand the consequences of taking an undocumented person into custody.

“It’s really an outrage to have local law enforcement saying, ‘We’re not targeting folks’ — they’re saying, ‘We’re only going after bad actors,’” Cox said. “If you look at this, the bad actor is anyone who’s complicit with any type of targeting of the immigrant community. Law enforcement is the spear tip. That’s where the choice has to be made.

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