Although felony and misdemeanor cases make up the bulk of local charges that put undocumented people in the pipeline for deportation, observers say they have seen ICE move more aggressively to claim custody of immigrant detainees since Trump’s inauguration.
“Since early this year, things have ramped up,” said Alan Doorasami Sr., an attorney who practices both immigration and criminal law with the Law Office of Alan Doorasami Sr. in Winston-Salem.
One of Doorasami’s clients, a young woman who came to the United States at the age of 2 and holds Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, was arrested shortly after her 18th birthday in June and charged with stealing a stick of lipstick from Walmart. Doorasami said the young woman’s friend, a US citizen, pleaded guilty to stealing cosmetics, but his client denies taking part in the theft. In June, before she had a chance to appear in court, Doorasami said, she was taken into custody by ICE and transferred to the Stewart Detention Center in south Georgia.
“This is an extremely serious issue,” Doorasami said. “One, she denies it. Two, she wasn’t even given a chance to go to court and tell her story. Plus, she’s a DACA recipient; she has a right to live here. That particular case is a deep concern. That’s what the public needs to know about.”
Many of the people in the undocumented community facing local charges in Forsyth County would have been in jeopardy of deportation even before Trump was elected.
“ICE is picking up people for very simple offenses,” Doorasami said. “DUI and domestic violence — they are way up on the ladder.” He added that people charged with those offenses were considered priorities for removal by ICE “long before Trump was elected.”
Antonio Mejia Zarate, 32, was arrested for DWI by a Winston-Salem police officer after his 2006 Dodge pickup was involved in an accident near Jonestown Road and Still Point Drive at 9:15 a.m. on June 21, 2016, according to court records. The arresting officer noted there was a child in the vehicle, and charged with Zarate with the most serious level DWI.
Zarate completed a 40-hour class and earned a certificate of completion from Life Changes Counseling Short-Term DWI Alcohol & Drug Treatment on Feb. 17.
Cris Liendo, a counselor with Life Changes, gave Zarate a glowing review in a letter to the court.
“While attending treatment, Mr. Zarate actively participated and applied the information discussed during our sessions,” Liendo wrote. “This client was very punctual, responsible and honest about his situation. He did excellent the entire time he was attending our program.”
Zarate pleaded guilty on Feb. 22, and Judge Lawrence Fine sentenced him to 30 days in jail with supervised probation of 18 months. Five weeks later, Judge Fine signed a modification of probation, noting, “Defendant has been picked up by ICE on 3-24-17. Verified by letter from ICE agent. Defendant has been moved to South Carolina.”
Once undocumented immigrants booked into the jail are flagged by a national database, ICE has the opportunity to take custody of them and file a detainer — a voluntary request for the jail to hold them.
“I hate those ICE detainers,” said Lonnie Albright, the assistant county attorney assigned to the sheriff’s office, led by Sheriff Bill Schatzman.
“Agencies are getting sued all the time,” Albright added. “If that person is here a couple hours and bonds out, we have no legal basis to hold them.”
Albright said he recalled at least one undocumented inmate in the past six months who bonded out of jail, only to encounter ICE agents waiting in court when he made his first appearance.
“Being here undocumented — that is not in and of itself a crime,” Albright said. “Those who were deported and come back — that is a federal crime and the sheriff will enforce the law. The sheriff is not out to do a roundup, no sir.”
Arrests by Forsyth County sheriff’s deputies — including two DWIs and one misdemeanor involving a man who allegedly pointed a gun at a woman — accounted for only three of the 53 local charges that landed undocumented people in jail in the first five months of 2017.
While the Forsyth County jail marks the beginning the journey for some undocumented residents of Winston-Salem and the surrounding area, for others the jail is a transit point. The sheriff’s office contracts with the US Marshals Service to house up to 50 male and five female inmates in the jail, to be reimbursed $70 per day. The contract also allows ICE and the US Bureau of Prisons to lease the beds. From January through May, 104 undocumented people in federal custody passed through the jail — almost twice the number of undocumented people held on local charges.
Albright said he knows little about the federal inmates at the jail, including where they come from and where they go, but local advocates have said many undocumented people housed at the jail are ultimately transferred to Stewart Detention Center, a for-profit facility operated for ICE by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, in Stewart, Ga.
The current population of detainees in federal custody held in Forsyth County includes three men who were arrested by ICE agents outside San Miguel Market on Yanceyville Street in Greensboro at 6 a.m. on July 25 while they were on their way to jobs with a local construction contractor. They are Adrian Balderas Plata, 40; Raul Ortiz Garnica, 21; and Jeovany Argueta-Garcia, 39.
One of the men leaves behind a wife who is 9 months pregnant. “I don’t know what we’ll do if my husband can’t be here for our child’s birth,” said Guadalupe Jocelin Cruz Lopez, a former Southern Guilford High School student and the wife of Garnica. “But everyone needs to know this is happening. ICE is coming for our families.”
The American Friends Service Committee is raising money to cover the families’ expenses, estimated to be more than $1,500 per month for rent, utilities and food. The Rev. Julie Peeples said in a statement distributed by the committee: “As people of faith, we hope community members will support these families, and will give generously so that they can get through this difficult time.”
Peeples’ church, Congregational UCC in Greensboro, is providing sanctuary for Minerva Garcia, an undocumented woman from Winston-Salem who is defying a deportation order from ICE.
Advocates have come to recognize a desperate reality for undocumented families attempting to support themselves while minimizing exposure to ICE and local law enforcement. David Fraccaro, the executive director of FaithAction, said his organization counsels clients to fix any broken taillights, refrain from speeding and carpool, if possible.
“We’re working on three fronts,” he said. “We’re working to support families who come to us because a family member is charged with a DWI or domestic violence. But we also try to counsel them to avoid at all costs breaking the law in the first place because the consequences can be catastrophic. If you have a broken taillight, you’ll want to get that fixed immediately. At the same time, as much as possible, we want people to be able to live lives of dignity and joy. It’s a really tough balance to strike.”
Joel Sronce assisted with research for this story.