A coalition of immigrant advocates, progressive religious folks and old-school community organizers are prepping for a fight over a proposed federal detention center for illegal immigrants.
The activists want to stop construction of the detention center, billed as a first-of-its kind holding jail for undocumented immigrants as they await deportation.
"Nobody wants to be known as a prison county," says Si Kahn, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group better known outside Charlotte than within the city, which CL praised in a cover story two years ago. The group's mission is to abolish for-profit, privately run prisons.
"A county needs a jail; it needs to deal with its own internal issues [but] this is a facility that imports people from all over the eastern seaboard," Kahn says. "That's not necessarily a reputation that a city that wants to see itself as a world-class community wants to have."
The detention center had been a favored project of now-former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph as well as Rep. Sue Myrick, but her spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment. In August, Pendergraph told Mecklenburg County commissioners that a private contractor could build a 1,500-bed facility and lease it to the county, which could charge the Immigration and Customs Enforcement for bed space. Federal immigration officials would bring illegal immigrants from all around the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast to the facility for deportation. Such an operation could pay for the lease, the facility and staff -- and perhaps even earn the county money, Pendergraph said, according to council minutes. And it would reportedly ease overcrowding at the jail.
Four months later, the detention center's status is unclear. Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Julia Rush says the office isn't involved in the plans.
Mecklenburg County Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts says she hasn't heard much about it since August. "I think there are a lot of questions that have to be answered," Roberts says.
And, of course, the sheriff debacle factors in somehow. Pendergraph recently left the sheriff's office for a job with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the position is in limbo as embattled attorney Nick Mackey waits to see if he'll ever take office. "I think the plans are probably on hold until the sheriff situation gets straightened out," says Roberts.
Pendergraph's departure has some activists hoping the detention center is "simply dead in the water," Kahn says. "I think that is not, in fact, likely."
Susan Green, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner, says the silence worries her. "I dislike the complex secrecy that seems to surround the decision-making process about the authorizing, the funding, the site selection, the operations, the management of the proposed detention facility," says Green.
Green even worries that the sheriff's controversy will allow more behind-the-scenes maneuvering: "My guess is there will be a lot that happens on this detention facility before Mackey is in place -- if he gets in place."
Chipp Bailey, the acting sheriff who lost the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party vote for sheriff, told The Charlotte Observer that he will continue the 287(g) program that screens jailed illegal immigrants for deportation. Mackey told the newspaper he was uncertain. Both men have cited jail overcrowding as a major issue for the sheriff's office.
German De Castro of the Hispanic Voter Coalition believes the plan is intentionally being pushed under the radar. "That's immoral to bring people in from other places, away from their families," says De Castro. "You don't build jails so you can fill them up."
Roberts says the commission still hasn't been advised on several matters: how it would be paid for, how it would be managed, and who would have control of the facility, among others. She noted that while Myrick and Homeland Security have pushed the idea, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt is "not very eager." As for Roberts? "I'm very cautious in looking at the proposals," Roberts says. "I don't think it's the best image for a growing metropolitan area that wants to be seen as progressive."