Two days before a primary election in which his opponent has the key endorsements, Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews publicly rejected a call by Latino groups to stop honoring ICE detainers, saying to do so would put more people at risk.
Andrews' answer to a question posed at Sunday's delegates assembly of the N.C. Congress of Latino Organizations was not new. The sheriff has previously said he would continue to comply with federal immigration requests to hold for 48 hours people in the jail who are in the country illegally if Immigration and Customs Enforcement asks him to do so.
But it was the one moment in a 90-minute meeting in which a political candidate answered "no" to a question posed by the groups.
Meetings like Sunday's, co-organized by Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods) are scripted. Guests get the questions ahead of time and then are asked to stand before the audience — about 350 people Sunday — and say yes or no to a series of questions supporting the group's agenda.
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The last time a law enforcement official publicly rejected a request came in June 2015 when then Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez rejected Durham CAN's request for police reforms aimed at preventing racial profiling. Lopez said he felt confronted and could not commit to the requests at the meeting. Three months later, after a series of community relations gaffes and ongoing concern about alleged profiling, he was forced to resign.
By contrast, Andrews was non-confrontational.
Both he and challenger Clarence Birkhead agreed on three of the groups' four questions, which included a promise to meet with the groups 90 days after the election and not to hold traffic checkpoints near schools, churches and daycares.
But Andrews said no when asked to terminate the department's policy of honoring ICE detainers. Birkhead, who has won the endorsements of the city's three big political groups heading into Tuesday's primary election, has previously said he would not honor detainers.
"I have not changed that stance, and I will not change that stance," Birkhead said to applause.
Andrews repeated that he thinks it is better for ICE to pick someone up from the jail rather than for agents to search for that person in the community where other immigrants without legal documentation might get taken into custody.
That happened last month when ICE arrested at least 25 people in the Triangle, including many who were not the agency's targets.
"ICE will go into the community looking for these men and women, and many of you will be put in harm's way," Andrews told those gathered in the Duke Memorial United Methodist Church sanctuary.
He said he has tried to talk with federal immigration officials for over two years without success.
The sherff's position on detainers has confused some community members, meeting organizers said, because his office has previously said it does not collaborate with ICE. Local law enforcement has also sought to build trust in the Latino community, about 13.4 percent of the Durham County population and about 30 percent of the Durham Public Schools enrollment.
"Our community is going through very difficult times, and that's made for a lot of racist and anti-immigrant sentiment," said Ingrid Nunez, pastor at Iglesia Episcopal El Buen Pastor.
Raids like last month's, in which parents were taken from their children, turn "the American dream into the American nightmare," she said. ""We trust in [law enforcement] to give us hope and to give us peace."
Durham's immigration stance appears to be in between counties that do not honor ICE detainers and those that participate in a program, 287(g), in which deputies take on immigration enforcement duties.
Immigration lawyer Yesenia Polanco called ICE holds unconstitutional because they prevent a person accused but not convicted of a crime from posting bail and going free until court. She said the sheriff's statements have "generated a great deal of panic and confusion in the community."
On Monday, Maj. Paul Martin of the Sheriff's Office said neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has declared detainers unconstitutional.
All people entering the jail are fingerprinted, and the prints go to both state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. The prints help verify people's true identity, as some people in the jail give a false name or have false identification, he said.
"Within the last three months an ICE detainer was issued on a subject," Martin wrote in an email. "When ICE arrived we learned the subject was wanted for a double homicide in Honduras. If [the] sheriff had not honored the detainer this subject would have been released.
Under federal regulations, Martin said, the Sheriff's Office cannot release the name of the subject. ICE also does not reveal the reason for the detainer when it makes the request, he said.
Sunday's meeting also featured candidates for Durham Public Schools Board of Education. All those present pledged to support more bilingual staff, bilingual school counselors and the creation of a local commission to make schools safer.