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, 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.
If a suspect is identified as an illegal immigrant, ICE agents will be notified, and it will be up to them to decide whether the suspect should be held and processed for deportation, according to Duncan. He expects the computer system to be up and running by mid-September or early October.
Last year, about 16,800 suspects were processed through the Buncombe County jail, Duncan says. About 10 percent of the jail population is foreign-born.
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 based 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 unhumanitarian 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 as overdue, but it 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 Buncombe County Sheriff's Office is the only one in the pilot project that's not enrolled in the federal government's 297(g) program, which offers specific training to deputies that allows them to begin deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants brought into county jails. Alamance, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Gaston, Henderson, Mecklenburg and Wake counties are all participating in that program, and other N.C. counties have expressed interest in joining. But federal resources are limited, and ICE officials have said there are no plans to enroll more counties at present.
Henderson County started participating in the 287(g) program on July 6 and began testing the computer-software connections with federal databases about two weeks ago. "There are still a few bugs in it," Chief Deputy Greg Cochran told Xpress, "but hopefully by the time Buncombe is turned on, they'll have those bugs worked out."
Since Henderson joined the 287(g) program, deputies have identified 88 illegal immigrants, Cochran says, and 77 of them have been issued notices to appear at a hearing in Charlotte to determine whether or not they should be deported.