Buncombe is one of four North Carolina counties testing computer software that will allow deputies at the Detention Center to run fingerprints through the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement databases. If the pilot project, which also involves neighboring Henderson County and Wake and Gaston counties, is successful, it could be replicated in all of the state's 100 sheriff's departments.
For Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, the project's goal is clear: "Quite frankly, it's safer communities. We'll be able to identify folks who have slid under the radar before." The federal check will help local law enforcement avoid situations where criminals wanted elsewhere are released, Duncan said.
Not everyone thinks the pilot project is a good idea. "I think it's a bad policy," says Francisco Risso, a spokesman for Workers United of Western North Carolina, a Morganton-based group with offices in Asheville. The group works to improve the wages and benefits of low-wage workers by partnering with other community organizations.
"It's an un-humanitarian policy targeting workers and something that's really a symptom of a broken system," Risso says. "We want to see something more constructive. It's not fair to just single out and punish the workers."
The pilot project will come online in Buncombe County just weeks after federal immigration agents raided the Mills Manufacturing plant in Woodfin on Aug. 12, an action that agents said was the largest ever in Western North Carolina and resulted in the arrest of 57 people. The raid was hailed by many, including Asheville City Council member and congressional candidate Carl Mumpower, who said at the time that he was glad to see agents crack down on illegal immigrants. Mumpower also took some credit for the action, noting that he passed a tip to federal agents from a Mills employee who had contacted him about the plant employing undocumented workers.
The raid also moved dozens of people to march through the streets of Asheville and hold a prayer vigil at a local church, all to show their support for those arrested.
The N.C. Sheriff's Association, an organization that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the state's 100 sheriffs and provides training and support services, has been working for nearly two years on ways to help sheriffs departments identify illegal immigrants. The group received $750,000 in state funding last year and $600,000 this year toward that effort. Eddie Caldwell, the association's general counsel, says the funding, and work with N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, has resulted in the pilot project that he hopes will be a success.
"Any time you have someone who is arrested and in jail, it's critical you know who they are and what criminal record they really have," Caldwell says. "It's about accurate information."
Read the full story in Wednesday's edition of the Mountain Xpress.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor
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