I Go To Jail

Miguel Ortiz* sold ice cream from a push-cart in downtown Charlotte to earn money for his family. A couple of local thugs assaulted him in broad daylight, so he called the police to report it. At some point, the responding officer decided to question Miguel about his citizenship, and, upon learning that he lacked the proper documentation, arrested him. He is now scheduled for deportation.

Elaine Villa* got into a yelling match with a neighbor over a fight between their children. This took place in her front yard, and the neighbor notified police that she had been “threatened” by Mrs. Villa, who was subsequently arrested, and is awaiting deportation.

Both Mr. Ortiz and Mrs. Villa had no prior criminal record. In fact, this was the first encounter with the police of any kind. Unfortunately for them, the city they lived in is the model city for a new program, administered and in part staffed by I.C.E. agents, that screens any foreign born person for immigration violations, once they enter the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte, N.C. It works like this: When a person reaches the jail, a form is filled out, and the first two questions they ask “everybody” are “of what country are you a citizen?” and “Where were you born?” If either answer given is something other than the United States, the person is automatically fingerprinted and run through the I.A.F.I.S. (Integrated, Automated, Fingerprint Identification System) which is linked to I.C.E.’s database, housed in Vermont. If the person has an immigration violation, or any prior criminal history, that person is held until deported, usually without opportunity to post bond. However, if no information turns up on the search, the Sheriff’s Dept has a team of 12 officers, trained by I.C.E., which will interview the person and determine whether to hold them for deportation, or, issue them an NTA (Notice To Appear) to the immigration office in ATLANTA, GEORGIA. (More on that later) So far, so good, right? Well, my next question seemed appropriate enough. “What happens if they don’t indicate something other than the U.S.?” The man that answered my question, Sergeant Quinn Stansell, is one of two team leaders in charge of this unit. He replied, “If something seems out of place, like, if the person speaks a language other than English, we have the discretion to run them through this process anyway.” Really. Apparently, speaking any language other than English is probable cause to believe you may have committed an immigration violation, and subjects you to this dehumanizing process. Let me say up front that Sgt. Stansell, and his staff, were very professional and well informed. He seemed to genuinely feel that this program was making Charlotte, well, Mecklenburg County a safer place. The reason I make this distinction is that if Mr. Ortiz or Mrs. Villa had entered any other county jail in the country, they would both be home with their families today. That’s because no other county anywhere has this program, though the Davidson County Sheriff has applied to the Federal Government to bring this program here to Nashville. This is the point where I alert you to the presence of the elephant in the room. If this program’s intent is to “weed out” the worst offenders in our communities, doesn’t it seem logical that those that we really want gone will simply stop operating in Davidson or, in this case, in Mecklenburg County? I asked that question to Sgt Stansell. “Well, the Sheriff was elected to protect the people of Mecklenburg County, and this program will help us do just that.” As I said, I really feel that he believes it. I liked him, he was courteous, accommodating, and completely transparent, and gave me unfettered access to his staff and the facility. But I have to wonder why the obvious flaw has escaped him. The smaller neighboring counties that do not have the manpower or resources to implement this program will simply absorb the worst of the lot, and here in the Davidson County area we may very well rid ourselves of people like Mr. Ortiz or Mrs. Villa, while Sumner, or Robertson County deal with the inevitable migration of drug dealers, murderers, robbers and the like. Of course, there are many other problems associated with this program, the lack of due process is perhaps the most alarming, and I hope to further cover this early next week. Stay tuned.

* To protect their privacy, I have not used their real names.

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