SPLC Urges DHS to Rescind Immigration Enforcement Agreement in NC

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today called on federal officials to end an immigration enforcement agreement with Mecklenburg County, N.C., citing immigration proceedings launched against a man whose actions led to the firing of a police officer accused of sexually assaulting women.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the SPLC said the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office in Charlotte has ignored the civil rights of community members and should have its 287(g) immigration enforcement program terminated.

The letter also asks Homeland Security to investigate the case of Abel Moreno, an undocumented immigrant who reported a North Carolina police officer attempting to sexually assault his girlfriend during a December traffic stop. Five other women have since come forward to accuse the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer of trying to sexually assault them. The officer has been fired. In addition to sexual assault charges, the officer is also charged with falsely arresting Moreno. Despite his actions and the false arrest, Moreno was turned over to immigration authorities and is facing possible deportation under the sheriff's office's 287(g) program.

"This is a locality which has shown a brazen lack of regard for the civil rights of its community members," SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer says in the letter. "Clearly, Mr. Moreno should not have been arrested. Once it was determined that he was falsely arrested, he should have been released immediately."

The SPLC, which has represented many immigrant crime victims, also called on Homeland Security to enact regulations to protect crime victims and witnesses from being placed in immigration proceedings when they report crime.

The 287(g) program allows local law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements with the federal government to help enforce immigration law. The program was created to help immigration authorities capture criminals who threaten communities or national security. But in a sampling of cases at four sites by Homeland Security's inspector general, only nine percent involved serious and violent crimes that are the highest priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to a report published in March. The vast majority of those removed under the program are charged with minor traffic offenses.

"Mr. Moreno's case is even more problematic – he was not legitimately charged with anything; he was, in fact acting admirably in the public interest," the letter said.

A February 2009 study of the program in North Carolina found that it failed to adhere to its own standards by failing to implement complaint mechanisms, publicize the function of officials, provide for interpreters, create a steering committee, outline how program certification takes place and allow for modification of its agreement with federal officials through public input, according to the letter. The study was conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"This is not only a serious failure and waste of resources, but a prescription for more crime in our communities," the letter says.

When the SPLC surveyed low-income Latinos in two areas with 287(g) agreements in 2008 – Charlotte and Nashville – it found that most Latinos were reluctant to cooperate with police because of these agreements. 

"If Mr. Moreno had not spoken out because he was afraid he might face deportation, the officer in question would likely still be carrying his badge on the streets of Charlotte," the letter says.