Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker reassured members of the Hispanic community on Sunday that he has cut ties with a controversial federal immigration program. But Baker added that he has no authority to stop the recent increase in immigration raids.
Baker announced in December he was ending Wake’s longtime participation in the 287(g) program, where local law enforcement agencies notify federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers about the legal status of inmates in county jails.
ICE officials have cited how Baker and the sheriffs in Durham and Mecklenburg counties are no longer participating in 287(g) as a reason for raids that resulted in the arrests of 200 people statewide last month, The Charlotte Observer previously reported.
“I have no control over ICE,” Baker told Hispanic residents who attended Sunday’s community meeting at St. Michael the Archangel Church. “I have to let you know that. I’m sorry. If I did then I would be doing something about it.”
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Sunday’s meeting was organized by a coalition of groups representing the Hispanic community. Organizers at the event claimed the recent raids are terrorizing people, breaking families apart and eroding the trust between the Latino community and local law enforcement.
In a news conference last month, ICE Atlanta Field Office Director Sean Gallagher called ICE actions the “new normal,” The News & Observer previously reported.
“This is the direct conclusion of dangerous policies of not cooperating with ICE,” Gallagher said at that news conference. “This forces my officers to go out onto the street to conduct more enforcement.”
Baker, a Democrat, had campaigned on ending Wake’s participation in the 287(g) program. He defeated longtime Republican Sheriff Donnie Harrison in November.
Baker drew applause Sunday when he said he was against ICE separating families and that he had terminated all ties to the 287(g) program, though that decision had sparked criticism from federal officials.
Baker said ICE now is doing the job it’s responsible for instead of asking sheriff’s deputies to do it on behalf of the federal government.
Baker said the value of greater cooperation from the Latino community from ending 287(g) participation outweighs other concerns. Baker said he wanted to ensure open lines of communication with the entire community, but also stressed that anyone in Wake County who breaks the law could face legal action.
“We want to make sure that you feel free to go about your lives just like everyone else,” Baker told the crowd of more than 300 people. “When I look and see all these children, this just makes my heart happy because this office wants to make sure that they’re going to be able to proceed through their life and get their education and everything that this county provides.”
Rick Brown, Baker’s senior legal advisor, provided additional details at Sunday’s meeting. He said a formal policy will be going out in the next week to educate officers at the Wake County jail they’re not agents of the federal government.
Brown also said that the sheriff’s office is no longer responding to administrative warrants signed by ICE requesting that a person be picked up without going to court.
“The sheriff, his authority is limited to Wake County,” Brown said. “There are certain federal statutes that we must abide by.
“He took an oath to uphold those. Areas of discretion, that is up to him and he’s already exercised his discretion in not honoring the 287(g) program.”
Brown added that the sheriff’s office has no involvement in the recent ICE raids.
Baker and Brown also announced new initiatives Sunday, including more diversity training for sheriff’s employees and setting up a community relations office.
“If you don’t feel comfortable having us report to your home with patrol cars there, you can feel free to come into that office,” Baker said.
Sandra Bueno, a pastoral council member at St. Michael who helped organize Sunday’s meeting, said Baker’s presence at the event was an encouraging sign to the Hispanic community.
“His willingness to be in a dialogue brings hope to people,” Bueno said in an interview. “That can give them a sense of relief that they’re not being persecuted.”